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Rudyard Ruins The Bachelor Auction

Chapter Text

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

Hidden in the English Channel is an island called Piffling. On the island is a village called Piffling Vale. The village might be only a mile long but it can boast a bus stop, a travelling circus, a petting zoo, a Ferris wheel, an owl sanctuary, and not one but two artificial waterfalls. Ah, yes and last but not least, two competing funerals homes. One is run by the most wonderful man in the world - Eric Chapman, Piffling's golden boy, everybody's favourite person. Whereas the other funeral home is run by Rudyard Funn who is a deeply unpopular man, despised by all. He is quite resigned to the sad reality of it. But tonight may be the night when he finally changes that. 

Because tonight is the night he'll fight, tooth and nail, to win the approval of Piffling’s public.

*

And that is the reason why he was currently crammed into the reception area of the Village Hall; along with his creepy sister, Antigone and their plucky assistant, Georgina Crusoe.

I was there too, of course - taking frantic notes and watching Rudyard cast a nervous glance over the assembled ensemble of Funn Funerals.

'Straw poll: who wants to go in first? Antigone? Georgie?'  

'I want to die!' His twin sister moaned. Her shadows did little to protect her in the cheery, well-lit, nondescript entrance hall so she appeared to be about as comfortable as a deer in the headlight.

'Well that suits me, but I think you’re overreacting.' Muttered Rudyard. He too wore an expression that belied how ill at ease he felt. He seemed to harbour some vague sense of guilt about being out and about town at such a late hour.

'Rudyard. I feel very silly.' Antigone declared with the exuberance of the heroine of a gothic horror novel.

'That’s what they want you to think.' Her brother sheeted.

'No, I really do feel extremely silly-'

'Then perhaps you should have worn a different dress!' Rudyard snapped back at her.

'Which I would have if you didn't make me sell off all my clothes. I've only got this one dress left!'

Yes, well, as you might have ascertained, we today begin in medias res, which is your actual Latin for “I’ve skipped ahead to the good bit.” Because I’m still wondering just how we managed to find ourselves waiting to make a public appearance, shaking with nerves and dressed to the nines - which in our case meant that Antigone put on her one dress without a hole in it and Rudyard had blue tacked on a bowtie and cut his cuffs to size with a blunt pair of scissors.

'This is wretched. I hate this.' Whispered Antigone and for all intent and purpose, it looked like she was trying to fuse with the sideboard.

'Stop it.' Rudyard scolded her, then turned to their dogsbody; effortlessly beautiful and elegant in the dress she threw on last minute, 'Now, Georgie how do I look?'

'Pretty sharp sir. Did you practice your warm smiles like I told you to?' 

She seemed expectant, so Rudyard gave it a bash; his attempt resulting in a wonky, wobbly, vaguely threatening abomination. Calling it a smile would have been a bit too charitable. Even for me. 

'No.' Moaned Georgie sounding nauseated. 'No, I am not being paid enough for this.' 

His confidence wilting, Rudyard turned to his sister to distract himself from his misgivings with a spot of amusing rowing.

'Antigone, stop writhing.'

'You are not the boss of me.' Antigone screeched at him like something that you might find in a hollow of a dead tree.

'I am, respectively.'

'No, you’re meant to be my co-director!' 

'Exactly.' Nodded Rudyard, making it sound as if Antigone didn't just disagree with her. 'And as the joint proprietor of Funn Funerals, you’re supposed to help me run a business! Are you really going to fall down at the first hurdle?' 

'Jesus wept!' Antigone tore at her hair angrily. 'Rudyard, given that I have as much right to the public face of this business as you do-' 

'You probably agree that in terms of putting our name out there this by far the best thing I have done.' Rudyard interrupted her, cutting off what was clearly shaping up to be criticism, deaf to any word of advice or reason as always when he was in the throes of a scheme. He'd made up his mind already and have decided in advance that this particular plan was going to be a success. Which was highly unlikely, given his track record.

But Rudyard… Well, let's just say that Rudyard has never been particularly gifted in the foresight department. To put it politely.

'You can't possibly think that this publicity stunt is a good idea!' Antigone pleaded in the manner of that particular mixture of exasperation and desperation that only Rudyard seemed to be able to elicit from people.

'Why wouldn't it be? It's supposed to bring some recognition to our noble industry, providing that wisp continuity through the pain and grief-'

'No, this is stupid and you’re utterly unhinged. Georgie: knock him unconscious.'

'Antigone,' Rudyard began, his voice full of flattery and challenge. 'aren't you the one who always says that we should be bolder, more open? That I should be out there, making the rounds of it, securing us more customers?'

'But do you really have to do that by taking part in a Bachelor Auction?!'

Yes, it was the night of the Great Piffling Bachelor Auction - Mayor Desmond's newest venture, designed to rally the community and get people excited about Piffling. And, last but not least, to raise some money for the owl sanctuary. Because, as it turned to the utmost vexation of His Excellency, it costs a great deal more to run such an institution than his conservative original estimate of "I'm sure it will all take care of itself."

'If that means spending the night in the company of the most influential people on the island, then yes.' Rudyard nodded with his usual seriousness. There was a feverish shine to his eyes as he spewed his plans further. 'If we do this properly, we might finally regain some respect around here!'

'Rudyard.' Syllabised Antigone. 'When I said to put our name out there, I meant that I want prestige, I want people to know I exist – and not stand idly by and be humiliated.'

'Look, stop it! I’ve had it up to here with your gloom, your doom and your pessimism! I’m proud of what we achieve at Funn Funerals and you should be too.' Rightful indignation rose in Rudyard, manifesting as a furious blush on his high cheeks.

'Rudyard, this will all end in tears.' 

'Why would it?!' My friend demanded, quick to forget every disastrous attempt he'd ever made at socialising.

'Because people are going to be bidding for spending an evening in your company. In a public place!' Antigone threw her hands in the air in utter annoyance, desperate to get her meaning through. 

'What’s that supposed to mean?' Rudyard narrowed his eyes with stubborn ignorance.

'It means that this is going to be a complete and utter washout, because you are so unpopular, Rudyard.' Antigone yelled, her composure finally lost. 'You think you are discerning, but the hard truth of your life is that no one ever really wants to spend any time with you!'  

'Antigone. That was very unkind.' Rudyard sniffed and his sister shrunk back on herself somewhat as a result but did not back down. She had to be cruel, on occasions, to spare Rudyard even bigger burdens of pain.

'Look.' She said, her voice a bit timider. 'All I am saying is that you symbolise a subject that many would prefer to ignore and no amount of desperate quests to curry favour with the locals will change that.' 

Rudyard bit his lip in response, pulled himself up to his full, rather underwhelming height and cocked his head proudly with the expression of someone who was approaching the gallows but resigned himself to show no fear as to not to grant his captors the satisfaction.

'Do you really think' He asked quietly. 'that I am not aware what a lonely life this is? What does it feel like when you are the only one stuck inside your head? How it sometimes makes you wish that you were the one laid out on the slab?'  

'Rudyard…' Antigone sighed, taming her voice placatingly, but was interrupted once more.

'But are you seriously trying to tell me that nothing ever gets better?' It was Rudyard's turn to plead. He was scraping at the bottom of the barrelful of sheer grit that propelled him this far, that much was evident in his cadence. 'That nothing ever changes?'

'I just-'

'That it's wrong to want to be appreciated?' Rudyard's shoulders collapsed a little, as he admitted to this secret desire. 'For a change?'

'No, Rudyard.' Antigone rushed to say. Rudyard's quiet words blew out the spark of anger in her heart completely. 'In fact, I believe that one day you might even meet someone who likes everything about you, even the fact that you are rude and overweening-'

'You see, you were almost nice there for a minute."

'And you’ll be deliriously happy together.' But as quick as it was to dissipate, Antigone's annoyance gathered momentum once more.'I just don't think that a Bachelor Auction is the right place for that.'

'It might be if you are gaming the system.' Rudyard announced triumphantly. 'Quick, Georgie, back me up.'

'What?' Georgie blinked in confusion. 

'Bring up our other argument!' Rudyard demanded, causing his dogsbody to roll her eyes - whatever defences Rudyard had prepared in advance, she clearly didn't think it was convincing enough.

'Basically' she began with a big, tired sigh. 'Sid Marlowe at Piffling Matters ran this feature on the bachelors to drum up some publicity and he's had an interview with Rudyard-'

'Georgina' the threatening edge in Antigone's voice was cutting like a scalpel. 'We've just established that everyone already knows where we are and they can come if they want to. And since nobody does want to come, I can’t see what advertising the fact will do for us.'

'I'll tell you what, Antigone Funn.' Joined in a familiar voice.

It was Sid Marlowe, the one-man editorial team of Piffling Matters. He prowled up to us, sipping a daiquiri, clearly dressed up for the occasion; sporting a shirt that had colours and patterns that somehow managed to clash both with each other and everything around them.

'Good evening, Mr Marlowe! We were just talking about you!' Antigone greeted him kindly, knowing that he wasn't exactly fond of her. 

'Ooh, I see!' Sid scowled at the mortician instantly. 'Plotting to avenge me for my vitriolic review on The Sun Beyond The Shades?'

'You gave it five stars!' 

'Well, you can’t threaten me!' The journalist puffed his chest out proudly. 'This is anti-press bias! I shall write to my paper!'

'I really wasn't-' 

'You were saying, Mr Marlowe.' Rudyard sighed beside them to move along the conversation somehow.

'Ah, Rudyard.' Sid beamed, noticing the undertaker at last. He nudged him with his elbow, recognising him as a kindred spirit of a co-conspirator. 'Have you seen the article yet?'

'No, but I am looking forward to it!' 

'It's tremendous, got to tell you- the most electrifying interview of the century so far.' Boasted Mr Marlowe, taking a huge, well-deserved sip of his cocktail. 'With this kind of publicity, the birds will be queuing up around the block for a night with you, boy.' 

'Are you seriously telling us, Mr Marlowe, that you found a way to make my brother seem interesting?' Antigone inquired, then catching herself she nodded towards her brother in a minute bow of apology. 'No offence, Rudyard.'

'Lot's taken.'

'I sure did. Here, have a shufty.' 

Whipping out the newest issue of Piffling Matters from under his arm, where he kept it folded for some mysterious reason, Sid was happy to guide the team's attention to his front-page bombshell of an interview on Rudyard.

“Will it be a leap year? You decide,” muttered Antigone, studying the issue with an owlish squint. 

'Not that! That!' Marlowe poked a thick finger on the right section of the page.

Georgie took the tabloid from him, shook it out a little and began to recite.

"Rudyard Funn. The man. The menace. Today we uncover the truth behind the legend; the truth about the con man, petty criminal, domestic terrorist and all-around horror of Piffling Vale. Mr Funn gained notoriety as a nightmarish spectre of ignorance and violence to the good citizens of Piffling Vale when he was accused of serial murder-" her voice trailing off, Georgie looked up with an expression of dismay. 'Flipping hell.'

'Mr Marlow! What is the meaning of this? This is slander if nothing of a sort!' Rudyard billowed at the journalist who merely blinked at him in a bleary look of slight inebriation.

'I-' 

'And not only that! It is dirty as!' Added Georgie, who buried her nose back into the pages. 'Bloody ‘ell, Rudyard! It's filthier than you could possibly imagine! Listen to this: "With his eyes sunken and his skin pale and drawn, Rudyard Funn cuts a handsome figure of a chiselled Adonis with the strength of a wild bull…" 

'Oh, god!' Antigone wailed, sounding as if she was about to be sick.

'Mr Marlowe, you call this slapdash mockery of factual truth and collection of barefaced lies investigative journalism?' Rudyard demanded.

'He bares more than a face in this!' Declared Georgie, almost as outraged as she was fascinated by the scandal. 

'Hey, watch it, son!' Sid attacked back, finally gathering himself. 'You are talking to the premier journalist of Piffling Vale. You don't want the power of the press come lashing down upon you.'

'Because God forbid that you ran a libel campaign against me for no good reason, right ?!' Rudyard yelled, words thickly padded, fortified with sarcasm.

'Is that a picture of you being chased by a swan?' Georgie tried to thrust the paper under his nose, but the funeral director batted it away, annoyed.

'Shut up, Georgie!' 

'Now, son, I've actually done a great bloody big favour for you!' Argued Mr Marlowe. 'You used to get bags of fan mail when folks thought you were a criminal. I just thought we should tap into that air of danger around you that you've always had going, to get you and your business a bit of exposure.'

'Mr Marlow, you will find that the only thing dangerous about my brother is his lethal ineptitude.' Antigone pointed out as if being confronted with facts was going to cause Mr Marlowe misgivings. When, in reality, we all knew that Sid thought that morals were those teeth that gave him so much trouble until he'd gotten Dr Edgeware to take them all out.

'Besides, the exposure this article will result in is not the kind Rudyard has the slightest interest in!' Added Georgie, more to herself than to anyone in particular. 'I'm talkin' about the kind more explicitly depicted within certain genres of French cinema.'

'Georgina, that's enough.' Shuddered Antigone with disgust. 

'Slowly, passionately. And with subtitles.'

'Shut up, shut up!' 

'Well, there's nothing I can do about it now.' Shrugged Mr Marlowe, appearing baffled by the funereal staff team's agitation. 'The article went to print already.' 

'Now look here, there's no need to panic.' Rudyard managed to conjure up a nervous little laugh. 'I mean who actually reads gutter press like Piffling Matters?'

'Hey! That interview doubled my circulation, you know.' Sid protested. 'It was even more popular than my groundbreaking investigation into those twin cats. And I mean, have you ever heard of twins?' 

'I have a twin sister!' 

'Get away! Really?' Mr Marlowe yelped, almost spitting out his current sip of cocktail in surprise. 'We should have got that in the story!'

'Rudyard, what do we do?' Antigone worried her hands. 'This scandal could completely ruin us!'

'What else is there to do, besides take a few breaths, go home and change into slippers?' Shrugged Rudyard, chancing one wistful glance at the door to the Village Hall. From behind it merry tunes of a jazz band emerged and we could hear the muffled narration of Reverend Wavering as he hosted the Bachelor Auction, as well as the sporadical female laughter or cheer in response. 

Antigone and Georgie exchanged some surreptitious stares then shrugged. But just as we were about to turn on our heels and lumber awkwardly home, someone nipped out from the Hall.

'Crikey, it’s a warzone around here.' Chapman declared, looking about himself. 'Funn Funerals! Sid! What happened?'

'Chapman!' Yelped Rudyard. Unsurprised because of course his nemesis had to be here, but still annoyed by his constant, overbearingly happy presence.

'Well, Rudyard was-' Sid began but Chapman just nodded.

'Ah, that makes sense.' Turning to his competing funeral director he said. 'Dealing with the press, Rudyard?'

'What do you want, Chapman?' 

'Truth be told, I wanted to have a word with you.' 

Eric Chapman looked uncharacteristically sombre as he said that - though he was just as charming in his tailcoat suit as ever, even with his brows furrowed in an expression of concern.

'Well, go on then.' Rudyard nodded magnanimously, though he crossed his arms in a show of impatience.

Chapman looked at him, at the women of Funn funerals, and finally at the alert the journalist present. Then back at Rudyard.

'I was hoping we might be able to speak in private.' He pointed out. 

'That doesn't appear to have worked out for you, does it?' Scoffed Rudyard merrily. 

'Right then.' Eric pursed his lips only for his stern expression to melt away at once. Instead, he looked at Rudyard with the slightest of smiles playing at his lips as he beheld him with his loosely attached white bow tie askew and his starched shirt desperate to escape the confines of his waistcoat as well as strands of his pomaded hair starting to rearrange themselves into his usual messy mop. 'How's life treating you, Rudyard?'

'It's not treating me to anything just now.' Rudyard muttered, uncertain under the warmth of Chapman's gaze. He pulled nervously on his suit jacket and fidgeted with his disastrous cuffs.

'Listen, I wanted to discuss this interview of yours with you!' Chapman began, the kindness steeping his voice as well. Stepping closer it looked like he was about to reach out to wrap a hand around Rudyard's shoulder. His outstretched arm fell limply by his side, however, when the other funeral director took a large and demonstrative step back. 

'The public relations of Funn Funerals is hardly your concern, Chapman.' 

'Actually Rudyard, it does concern me. Have you even read it? Because I did - with my eyes as closed as they physically can be - and I was appalled.' Turning to the eagerly listening author present, he added. 'No offence, Sid.' 

'None taken, Eric boy.' Waved Marlowe, dismissing the criticism, too busy not taking his eyes off of the scene unfolding in front of him, not even to position his mouth near his straw; so he could only clasp his lips around the curly pink plastic after gauchely flailing about with his tongue for a couple of minutes.   

Meanwhile, Rudyard's expression began to bore the dark clouds of recognition.

'Oh, I see. I see what this is all about.' 

'You do?' Chapman's whole face lit up, the wrinkles of a worrisome pout smoothening at once. 'Oh, I'm so relieved. I knew you wouldn't have agreed to this degenerate filth to be published if-'

'You really can’t handle it, can you?' Rudyard jabbed a finger in the air in the most accusatory manner he can muster. 

'What?'

'Even if one person gets more attention than you? No, Mr Perfect needs to have it all!' Muttered Rudyard, stepping up to relate his accusation directly into Chapman's face.

'This isn't about me , Rudyard.' Eric protested but to little avail.

'Isn't it? Because the moment Funn Funerals establishes a media presence, the moment we try to put our funeral home on the map you are there, trying to steal the limelight as always, like the preening egomaniac that you are! But rest assured, we are not going to stand idly by and let you triumph this time!'

'Rudyard, a charity auction is not a competition!' 

'Then why am I winning?' Seethed Rudyard.

By now the funeral directors were standing nose to nose as Rudyard kept barging into Chapman's space while Eric stood his ground. The air between them sizzled with what could very easily have been animosity. They both seemed to be trying to convey meaning by just widening their eyes to one another; one of them by glaring with anger, the other blinking with compassion.  

And all we could do was to watch this odd display.

'You’ve got to think about what you want people to say about you.' Chapman declared with finality, brushing away the finger Rudyard was drilling in his chest, in by painful inch. Unbalancing the other funeral director, who had to perch on his tiptoes for that feat. 'What do you think they say at the moment?'

'I imagine that it’s how I get the body in the coffin in the ground on time.' Rudyard cocked his head up, regaining both his stance and composure.

'Not with this article around they don't.' Eric emitted a muffled cry. 'When people read this, they’ll start to imagine all manner of things about you, and some of them might be right, but a lot of them will be wrong and you don’t want to have to think about the consequences of that kind of scandal. You can ruin your already precarious reputation!'

'Now look here, Chapman. You'll find that as the proprietor of Funn Funerals-

'Joint proprietor!' Antigone cut in almost involuntarily.

'It's my job to worry about our reputation.' Rudyard nodded, ignoring his sister's comment altogether. Chapman, on the other hand, wasn't so dismissive. 

'Speaking of which, where were you all along, Antigone?' He demanded, turning to the mortician. 'You know how impressionable your brother is, you have no business leaving him to get mixed up with media types.'

'Look it doesn’t make a difference anyway.' Georgie added, looking a bit guilty, much like Antigone. They both tended to assume some level of responsibility for Rudyard's crazy plans and schemes; or the very least for not having better control over the funeral director on the loose.  

'Basically, Chapman, we were already planning to sit this one out.' Antigone hurried to clarify to redeem herself somewhat.

'So you can probably stop playing the knight in shining armour and go back to schmoozing with Piffling's leading socialites.' Georgie added voice standoffish, refusing to be cowed by Chapman.

'And your bikini models!' Antigone added after some thought.

'That's very wise.' Chapman huffed with evident relief, smiling again. 'At the end of the day it’s only a storm in a teacup, you'll see. Nothing that a careful bit of damage control can't mend. I'm sure that if you can just keep a low profile for a couple days it will all blow over s-'

'Who said anything about keeping a low profile?' Boomed Rudyard and there it was again. The moment Chapman cast his entropic gaze over the crisis at hand, Rudyard's sensibilities - whoosh – were out of the window. 

'You did, not five minutes ago!!' Antigone cried, clawing at her face.

'Chapman, you may have charisma and a bowling alley and I see that you got quite used to hogging the spotlight.' Rudyard made an annoyed sort of gesture with his hand like he was batting away a persistent fly. 'But tonight we are taking it back and remind everyone that we can still get the body in the coffin in the ground on time. Henceforth people will know that Funn Funerals is the right choice for anyone with a spot of intelligence, anyone who understands quality and possesses a discerning taste.'

'Trust me, tastefulness is the last thing the paper evokes.' Chapman retorted.

'Says you. But just because you’re clearly au fait with all sorts of smut we don't all have our minds in the gutter around here.'  

'I…' Two crimson spots of blush appeared on Chapman's cheeks as he finally reached the end of his tether, trying to talk some sense into Rudyard. 'Sure, you know what, fine. Do what you want. I’m really not fussed. So if you’ll excuse me.'

Turning on the heels of glossy patented shoes, Chapman geared up to make an irked exit. Looking over his shoulder, he addressed his competitor once more.

'And Rudyard? Enjoy yourself.' He said menacingly. 

The moment he was out of earshot, Antigone started at her brother.

'I knew it! I knew it was too good to be true.' She squalled.

'Antigone…'

'You worrying about Funn Funerals reputation? Fat  sodding  chance.' She pushed her pale, sharp face into Rudyard's. 'Of course this is all about your desperate need to one-up Eric Chapman.' 

'Now look here-' 

'You've always been obsessed with that of course but lately, it's becoming a venerable compulsion for you!' Observant and clever as she was, Antigone possessed a fairly sharp understanding of the intricacies of the human heart, not only literally but in the figurative sense too. Especially for someone whose life was largely filled with faces stiff with rigor mortis. Admittedly, this knowledge was mostly theoretical as she paced it together from the plots of dangerously depressing French cinema and raunchy novels. But that doesn't mean that she wasn't right when getting a bit suspicious of his brother's motives. 'Rudyard? What’s going on?'

'Nothing! Nothing at all!' He muttered defensively,

'Then why do I smell fear?' she seethed, sounding utterly sinister.

'Yes alright.' Rudyard caved. 'I may want a chance to prove once and for all that I am better than that asinine people-pleaser across the square! But what we do here tonight could be crucial to the future of Funn Funerals too. Because, at the end of the day, what is it that Chapman has that we haven't?'

'Customers.' Georgina suggested.

'Go away, Georgie.'

'And his own coffee machine.' She added, clearly peeved by the fact that the Funns still refused to return the Council's kettle.

'I said go away, Georgie! No, it's publicity. We need to do everything in our power to remind people of the traditional and valuable service we offer at Funn Funerals. So, what do you say, Antigone? Are you with me?'

'Rudyard.' Antigone sighed. She wasn't convinced, far be it from that. But she had a better understanding of her brother's nature and disposition than anyone and knew that there were more important things in life than solid, foolproof plans. Especially when it comes to keeping your loved ones happy. 'Winning this. How much does it mean to you?'

'This is my big chance to prove myself for Chapman-' Rudyard looked to the side, his voice introspective.

'For Chapman?' Georgie intercepted and Rudyard grew flush as he corrected himself.

'I-I meant to prove him wrong! Antigone. I have to do this.' 

'Well.' The mortician smiled a little, probably reminiscing a bit about matters of personal and professional pride and disastrous clown funerals. 'Off we go then.'

She marched bravely up to the door and wrapped her fingers around the handle, whispering encouragements for herself before entering.

'You can do this, Antigone. You are a normal person. You are a perfectly ordinary, everyday person.' 

Lagging a bit behind, Rudyard turned to Georgie, trying to get her to subscribe to his latest lunacy because if he knew one thing for sure it was the fact that any venture they dabbled in only ever worked because Georgie put her talent in it.

'You think it’ll end badly, don't you?' He asked mournfully, unsure as to just how to explain how badly he needed a win.

'I still hope it won’t.' Georgie shrugged with matching solemnity.

'I just wish other people could take me seriously.' Rudyard sighed, rubbing down his pale, drawn face. 'You probably think it's stupid, but… Well, other people are all that is, don't you think so?'

Georgie contemplated him from the corner of her eyes and if she'd thought that something was up with Rudyard's sudden interest in the public opinion, when before he was best pleased when he could keep away from "the bloody lot of them" - well, she didn't say so. Instead, she just shrugged again.

'Nah – but if this is important for you, then I'm going to fight for it with everything I’ve got.' She grabbed Rudyatd's shoulder, squeezing it. 'Because it’s worth doing. I'll always have your back, Rudyard. Especially when you are trying to knock Eric down a peg or two.' 

'Thank you, Georgie.' Rudyard said sincerely and with that the two of them entered the Village Hall, side by side.

Chapter Text

 

Inside the shindig was in full swing and the creme of the village danced away to the beats of the Piflling Philharmonic. The games room was completely transformed - the ping pong table was pushed to the wall, giving way to a set of smaller ones, arranged in a sort of circle. Reverend Wavering stood on a makeshift stage and some simple yet tasteful bunting decorated the space around him. He looked pretty trim in his nicest priestly frock and with his new eyeshadow. But, though he was an attractive fellow himself, sadly there wasn't going to be an opportunity to bid on him tonight - because he was no longer a bachelor, as the flashy gold band on his ring finger testified. 

'Going once, going twice, sold for a whopping hundred and sixty quid. Congratulations to this lovely young lady at table six. You have won a candlelit dinner with Fireside Phil.' He was just announcing as we stepped in, gesturing at one of Piffling's most eligible single dads and confirmed arsonist, Fireside Phil, who stood on stage sporting thick layers of bandage around his face. 

'I guarantee that sparks will fly between us.' Promised Phil, muffled from where the gauze was covering his mouth.

'It’s probably best if they didn’t.' Chuckled the Reverend with awkwardness he didn't need to feign. 'And we wish you good luck with your facial reconstructive surgery, Phil. Let’s hope it takes place sooner rather than later. Ok, you two go see Desmond to set that date. A hundred and sixty pounds is the biggest take so far in our bachelor auction. Remember, all proceeds tonight go to fund the owl sanctuary's running, so let’s keep those bids coming!' 

Suddenly self-conscious when confronted with the actual crowd he was supposed to appease, Rudyard lumbered to the stage. Since there were more drinks present than in the rest of the Channel Islands combined, the people of Piffling felt quite rowdy already, exalted and elated like they've been reading about sports! Rudyard began to fear that his task was too monumental, feeling the spectre of a crushing defeat already looming over him.

'Great, even the infamous arsonist sold for more than I will. This is shaping up to be the most humiliating night of my life, Madeline.' He whispered into his top pocket where I currently sat.

I offered him some amusing anecdotes, hoping that it will put things into context and remind him that there was always somewhere lower to sink. For all my effort, my recollections of his shenanigans only seemed to make him sadder.

 'Yes, I am including that day.' He declared, growing progressively more annoyed as I brought up another memory. 'And that one too. You know what, Madeline, this isn’t very helpful right now.'

There was no time to work out our differences of opinion, however, as the Reverend was just gearing up to announce the next item of the auction.

'Our next Bachelor is a…' Nigel paused, scraping for a polite word. ' quaint  local figure. You know him from his work at the second foremost funeral home on the island.' 

'Second?!' Cried out Rudyard indignantly, but his voice was drowned out by the static from the microphone.

'It says here' Read the reverend, consulting his clipboard 'that he hates flowers, raffles and leaving puppies unkicked…'  

'I just want to point out that we were here first!' Rudyard tried to intercept again but to no avail.

'It’s Rudyard Funn of Funn Funerals.' Announced the Reverend cheerily into the discomfiting quiet of the room. 'You are bidding on a meal with Rudyard so we will start the bids with… well, I don’t even know.' 

Scratching his greying head, Nigel looked at Rudyard thoughtfully.

'Does a tenner sound low enough to you, Rudyard?'

'Whatever you see fit, Reverend.' Muttered my friend from between his gritted teeth. 'I just want this to be over quickly and with the least amount of pain.' 

'Kind of how we all feel about your funerals.' Laughed the Reverend, turning back to his audience. 'Do I hear ten pounds?' 

There was no response from down below and the quiet was made only more poignant by the occasional cough or clinking of cutlery in the otherwise silent auditorium.

'For heaven’s sake!' Groaned Rudyard as the worst of his fears were seemingly manifesting right before his disbelieving eyes. 

'Praying already?' Asked the Reverend from the corner of his mouth. 'Might come handy. Remind me again, who is your god?'

But just as we began to think that all hope was lost, a hand shot up in the air from somewhere in the middle of the crowd.

'Can I ask a question, Rudyard?' Tanya said with an affected tone as the startled funeral director turned to Wavering.

'I don't know. Can she, Reverend?' 

'Oh, yes. It's the Q&As that make these auctions really work.'

'Then ask away.' Agreed Rudyard begrudgingly.

'Have you always been so beguiling?' 

And suddenly the room was erupting with rapturous laughter and cheer. The widowed, the singles and the spinster of Piffling were all clapping, hailing Rudyard in a shower of dubious compliments and wolf whistles.

'What?!' Rudyard muttered to himself, uncomprehending. 

'I can tell he's not an easy catch.' Declared Celia Sesame, waving an orange banknote until her brute of a husband promptly pulled her back to her chair. But even from her seated position, she wouldn't give up on her wager, much to the chagrin of her spouse. 'Ten pounds!'

'He is so attractive!' Sighed Mrs Carnagie dreamily, unclutching her purse, waving an indeterminate amount of notes in the air. 'I offer twenty.' 

'Nobody's debating that now, Karen. But you've already got yourself a fancy man.' Chimed in Mrs Turner. 'It's my turn now. Twenty-five pounds!'

'What is happening?' Rudyard whispered, half to me, half to himself while more and more hands shot to the air, waving money while the bids were being hiked up by ladies, anxious to get their paws on him.

'He does look a bit like a lingerie model.' Said Jennifer Delacroix in the momentary lull of the room, eliciting an annoyed "Hey!" from her girlfriend, quick to backpedal in response. 'I'm just saying!' 

'Oh, wow. Rudyard is a hit.' Reverend Wavering laughed. 'Who would have thought? I can hardly believe it myself. Anything to keep those bids coming, Rudyard? Got any hidden talents?' 

But fearing that he was being set up as the punchline to a rather cruel joke, Rudyard snatched the microphone and practically shouted down on it.'

'Now look here! If you are expecting some sort of tender heart to heart over a fancy meal from me, you will be gravely disappointed. I hate small talk and I am banned from most restaurants!' 

'I'll take you to the Piffling Royal instead!' Screeched Celia, now clutching what looked like a fifty. 'We can go in for the popcorn and stay for the-'

'Celia, I'm right here!' Moaned her husband, while Rudyard could only yelp. 

'That's obscene.'

'I can always cook something for you, Mr Funn.' Offered Mrs Turner. 'As long as it isn't cockroaches. Do you eat cockroaches, Mr Funn?' 

But before Rudyard had a chance to address that rather disturbing question, Miss Scruple rose to speak. 

'Who says that the evening has to end in a meal, ey?' And her suggestive voice and lewd winking sent Rudyard in a flurry of panic. 

'I do!' He cried. 'I say that! I insist. No, I demand it.'

'Ooh, really?' Dotty Scruple squinted up at him in an amused sort of way. 'Then why do I feel like I'm splashing out on a new  bedspread ?' 

And with that, she fanned out a hundred pounds in her hands.

'Gosh. You devil, you!' Rudyard wailed and turned to Wavering in desperation. 'Reverend. Do something!' 

But Nigel was too busy studying the crowd in a state of utter confusion.

'Can I just ask what have you ladies all been drinking? It seems to be something very potent. You haven’t been at the communion wine again, have you?'

'I had half a glass already.' Shouted Mrs Beamish merrily and knocked back another thimbleful. 'Your health!' 

'Oh no, we've talked about this Mrs Beamish. You've got to lay off the drinking!' Rudyard called out, unable to help himself. 

'I'm gratified that you-' Here Mrs Beamish interrupted herself with a hiccough. 'care.' 

'He'd always had a heart of gold under all that sizzling bad boy menace.' Agreed Tanya, clawing at her sternum in a theatrical display of affection.

'Even at the funeral of my late husband all he could think about was giving us a bit of exercise.' Countered Mrs Beamish. 'I am quite willing to spend as much as two hundred pounds for a night with him.' 

There was shouting and booing as multiple women tried to outbid her at once.

'Settle down, ladies, settle down.' Reverend Wavering tried to quieten the rowdy crowd, fruitlessly. If anything, they were growing more agitated. 

'Three hundred pounds.' Chimed in Petunia Bloom. 'Take them with my compliments!'

Sitting next to her, Sid Marlowe's jaw dropped.

'But Petunia!' 

'I'm sorry Sid, darling. It’s just that people like Rudyard over there – look at him – they make me go quite potty.' Admitted the florist, her face flushed her considerable bosom heaving. 'All I want to do is jump him!'

'Oh, no.' Whispered Rudyard in horror then he called out to his assistant. 'Help me, Georgie.' 

'All right, fellas!' The dogsbody shouted, climbing on her chair with ease, even though she was wearing high heels. 'Why don't you all just relax? Rudyard's not interested in any kind of naughtiness, flaming or otherwise, so you should probably just-'

'Are you trying to deny us, defenceless civilians, our right to have an illicit affair with the village's most accomplished shoddy businessman?' Horatia Bellows of Bellows farm stood, pointing one of her unusually large fingers at Georgie. Unfortunately, she upended Celia's entire table in the process and the already annoyed Mr Sesame was quick to jump up and try to take a swing at her. The brawling over the right for a not so civilised night with Rudyard had begun.

'You never even liked him before, bloody hypocrites!' Georgie shouted her accusation over the din of the angry mob.

'You can't stifle our democratic right to change our mind, you establishment stooge!' Shrieked Tanya, adding. 'Burn her!'

'Come away, Tanya!' Her loyal partner tried to calm the agitated woman, but she wouldn't hear of it.

'No Bill, let me do this!' 

'Come on then! Ten at a time!' Georgie taunted the people who'd begin to crowd her. She smashed a nearby bottle of bubbly on her table and waved the shattered glass, ready to yield as a weapon. It was, somehow, also on fire.

'Oh nonononono.' Muttered Rudyard while down in the audience, Mayor Desmond dived under a table shouting. 

‘Oh God, it’s finally happening. Anarchy in the streets! I always knew it’d end this way.'

Meanwhile, upstage the Reverend turned angrily to Rudyard. 

'Look at what you've done! The Bachelor Auction. It's ruined!'

Rudyard looked frantically about himself, desperate for help but finding none. Georgie was already well in the process of shattering craniums and ulnas. Antigone was down in the audience, narrowly avoiding being crushed by the veritable stampede that was unfolding and we were both stuck on stage, unable to grab the mob's attention and to control their bloodlust. And then, still scanning the crowd, Rudyard suddenly stopped as he realised! There was one man! One hope!

He ran to the side of the stage, where Chapman stood, mouth agape, unable to process the minor civil war in the making.

'Chapman' he shook the other man's shoulder, trying to rouse him from his stupor. 'why don’t you do something?!'

Eric pressed his lips into a hard, unsympathetic line.

'Why, I thought you had everything perfectly under control.' He sniffed coldly.  

'This is no time to gloat!' Pleaded Rudyard but Chapman just made a guttural sort of sound in his throat.

'It is the perfect time to gloat!' He declared. 'I told you what would happen if you tried to arrange a romantic evening between yourself and the most oversexed people of the Channel Islands, but did you listen?' 

'Well, I'm sorry-' Bellowed my friend indignantly.

'Apology accepted.' Chapman cut in, still sounding irked.

'But while I don’t like playing the blame game, I must point out that it was for your gruelling game of mental chess that caused the whole thing to go up in smoke!' Rudyard barreled on.

Chapman's eyes widened in disbelief 

'You can't seriously blame me for this!'

'Well, you can't fault me for trying to take what was probably my only opportunity to impress-' Rudyard's voice was smaller than usual, a defensive little hiss as he whispered at Chapman.

'The village?' Eric demanded, his eyes flashing. 'Well, congratulations because you succeeded beyond your wildest dreams!' 

'Jesus, Chapman.' Rudyard cried in frustration, throwing his hands in the air, forgetting about discretion altogether. 'I wasn't trying to impress the  entire village. ’ 

‘But if this wasn't really about winning back some much needed good publicity then-’

‘I was trying to impress you, alright?’ Rudyard finally snapped and while the sentence in itself should have been flattering, the anger in his voice was diminishing some of the charm. ‘You, you hear me, Chapman? You!’

Chapman, however, didn’t seem immune to the implicit compliment, even when it came in the form of being shouted at his face from mere inches.  

‘All this just to get into  my  good books?’ He stammered and unusually enough, his cadence was devoid of any hint of smugness. He just looked shell shocked.

‘Perhaps. Maybe.’ Rudyard directed to his toes, sulkily. And, looking up to discover no hint of hostility in Chapman’s expression, he blurted. ‘Yes entirely!’

‘Rudyard…’ Eric sighed with feel, but Rudyard interrupted and even backed away a little bit. 

‘Look, Chapman, I don't need your pity.’ He said, despondent, not allowing Eric to cut in. ‘Just tell me if you can help or not?’

They looked back at the room below where the strangest brawl of the history of Piffling was unfolding. For the first time when an angry mob and the proprietor of Funn Funerals were involved, the crowd wasn’t up in arms against Rudyard. It was, for once, lusting for him, rather than for his blood. I've certainly never seen anything like it before and I have penned four biographies on Rudyard Funn by now, with a fifth one in the making (predicted to become yet another Sunday Times bestseller)! I have to admit, it was a fairly disconcerting turn of events.

Not to mention what an ugly sight it made for. Tanya stood on a table, waving a baguette as a baton, whacking it repeatedly over Mrs Pertwee’s head, who had Bill in a headlock that belied her frail stature. A group of brave Piffling men tried to approach Horatia to hold her steady until she calmed because she had little awareness of her strength and was systematically destroying the room just by flailing her hands in panic. In a distant corner, Dr Edgware cried into his palms as the body count steadily rose.    

‘I don't see what I could do now.’ Eric looked in horror over the veritable warzone. ‘You know what they are like. They’ve scented blood and they won't back down until they get it.’

‘B-but you are so popular!’ Rudyard yelped in fright. ‘I'm sure that if you'd just begun to sprout your free love, wheat-free, sing-along nonsense you could calm them right down.’

‘Well, seeing that I am already quite strong at making people happier.’ Eric muttered, narrowing his eyes. He was already swayed a little bit by the compliment and his firm belief in his own ability to accomplish anything he’d set out to do. ‘Perhaps I should give it a bash.’ 

Still, he didn’t move, hesitating at the edge of the stage.

‘Go ahead. Make a statement that would get me out of trouble!’ Urged Rudyard.

‘I'm just not sure what could I say to make them all feel better.’ Admitted Eric, scratching his chiselled chin deep in thought, so lost in contemplation that he didn’t even notice the disbelief that overtaken Rudyard features. 

‘You can't be serious?!’ The undertaker stomped, his voice choked and high-pitched with the absolute flood of exasperation that rose, swelling in his throat. 

When Eric looked at him, still squinting and baffled, he did a little dance of frustration and finally gestured at the raging crowd. Mimicking Chapman’s infliction he parroted: 

"Enjoy yourselves!" 

‘Oh, right you are.’ Laughed Eric, relieved while Rudyard tried to breathe through his nose to calm himself. Chapman gently grabbed the microphone from him and stepped in the middle of the stage; the various projectiles, consisting mostly of plates and forks, somehow avoided him as he gently tapped the equipment. The ensuing static caused everyone to pause and cover their sensitive ears. In the momentary lull henceforth achieved, Chapman said:

‘Everyone, please, there’s no need to get upset!’ His voice oozed out of the multiple loudspeakers planted in strategic corners, thick with sympathy and an almost hypnotic calm. If he sounded faintly amused, he wasn’t being malicious. ‘Let’s hold our horses here. This is  Rudyard  you are fighting over. You are all perfectly entitled to his company, of course-’

‘You see, he admits it.’ Shrieked Mrs Lazenby, clutching her anger tightly under the onslaught of the soothing voice of Eric Chapman. 

‘I'm just not so sure that you want to spend your hard-earned cash on someone who isn't very funny or interesting.’ Chapman said mildly. ‘I want you to think about this carefully. That's all I ask. Do you really want to go on a date with someone so bleak and despondent?’

‘We really want to go on a date with someone so bleak and despondent.’ Confirmed Tanya.

‘I just personally think that the evening you bid for should be an excuse to get out there and socialise, to flirt, talk, maybe even hold hands. A chance to enjoy yourself and have fun.’ Chapman was gaining momentum now as always when he had something to pitch. 'And when was the last time you remember Rudyard having fun doing anything?' 

Little to the side Rudyard was listening in disbelief as Chapman directed more and more insults at him until he couldn’t take it any longer. He strode over to his rival and covering the microphone, as to not get overheard, he seethed at Eric. 

‘What are you doing, Chapman?’

‘Calming them down.’ Muttered the other undertaker under his breath, nodding almost imperceptibly towards the crowd. Admittedly, most of the Piffling residents lowered their improvised weapons and they slowly began to slouch closer to the stage. There was still tension in the air, but with their interest piqued, the villagers were less hasty to attack.  

‘By trashing my reputation?!’ Wailed Rudyard nevertheless.  

‘If it helps!’ Hissed Eric desperately and Rudyard rolled his eyes. 

‘Yes alright. Go on then.’

Chapman turned back to his eager listeners with a little flourish. He was leaning heavily into the performance now, using all his talent in showmanship to mesmerise the audience. 

‘I mean… didn't he try to swindle you, Miss Scruple, when you were grieving and vulnerable?’

Battleworn and covered in something that could have been either dried blood or brown sauce, Miss Scruple sniffed indignantly. 

‘I'll let you know, Mr Chapman, that he was doing everything in his power to make my dear departed Richard's séance a traditional and valuable service. And he was doing a bang-up job until that poltergeist showed up!’

Now a little resistance like this usually only inspired Eric to use the full force of his charms to sway his victims. Today, however, he was swiftly interrupted by Tanya, before he had a chance to warm his vocal cords.  

‘Of course, you'd be like this, Eric.’ The young woman accused, waving her broken baguette. 

'Now, Tanya what's the use in getting personal?’ Eric laughed a little, but his efforts to win her over seemed to be in vain. Climbing back on the table she just abandoned, Tanya pointed the baked good at Chapman. With her improvised, breadstuff based staff she looked a bit like a French revolutionary on a barricade, trying to hold Marie Antionette accountable for certain remarks made about cakes.  

‘We've all watched you, these past few months, smuggling yourself into this Piffling community! Leeching the life’s blood of this pitiful young boy, Rudyard.’’

‘He’s thirty-five.’ 

'In fact, if it wasn't for you…’ Continued Tanya, choking up slightly. ‘ If you hadn’t made him hate you so much...  He ’d still be here! I am talking about… a-about… our beloved-'

‘It's alright, Tanya!’ Bill patted her shin in support. 

‘Our Jerry!’ 

‘Jennifer Delacroix, Piffling FM.’ Georgie’s newly acquired girlfriend and Piffling’s premier radio host pushed to the front of the crowd. Holding her recorder, which she somehow managed to smuggle in under her tight-fitting dress, she called out to Chapman. ‘How could a man so great be so mean?’

In the background, several people began to boo. Horatia shook her first at Chapman, sending five or six onlookers flying in every which way like skittles at Chapman’s bowling alley.  

‘Good lord!’ Muttered the Mayor from his hiding spot under a table as the unthinkable happened - the people of Piffling were gradually turning on Chapman. 

Unfortunately, that also meant the return of the villagers fighting spirit. Mrs Crackerjack hit Mrs Rosenkratz, who promptly hit her back. So one of the Crackerjack brothers smashed a plate over her head in retaliation. But before the bloodshed could truly take off a very annoyed Reverend emerged from behind the podium where he previously hid and finally hijacked the villagers' attention by emitting a loud, piercing whistle.  

‘That's enough.’ He shouted with all the rage of an end-of-the-world preacher who’d been ignored until it was too late. ‘I've heard quite enough out of you lot! This is a charitable event, for God’s sake! It's supposed to bring the community together, not tear us apart! We should behave with dignity and respect! So let’s get the damn thing over with. Petunia, you offered three hundred pounds, I believe? 

‘Not fair.’ Howled Mrs Burnside a little off to the left. ‘When do  I  get to commit adultery?!’

‘I offer five hundred pounds!’ Confectioner turned constable, then back again, Agatha Doyle called out. 

‘Agatha!’ Rudyard glared at her in disbelief. After all, she’d been selling him sherbet dip-dabs for five years and never once did she show any interest in him, aside from enhancing her sales. Now, however, she merely held her head proudly.   

‘Oh don't "Agatha!" me.’ She said with unfailing confidence. ‘Did you really think that I was going to pass up a chance to have a reckless fumble with Piffling's premier delinquent? I had to be in there like a shot, naturally. Even if it is to take place in a back alley! After all, the unspoken romantic tension between cops and robbers is a well-known archetype.’

‘Over here, Vicar.’ Miss Scruple elbowed her way to the front. She adjusted the brown liquid of suspicious origins on her cheeks so they resembled war paint and flashed a thick wad of notes at the priest. ‘It's Rudyard Funn that I want. And I am willing to spend a lot of cash on it.’

‘Cash? Really? How much?’ Nigel Wavering turned to her obligingly. 

‘I'll pay one thousand pounds, Reverend.’

There was an array of shocked, sharp intakes of breath all around. Somebody whistled appreciatively in the densest depths of the crowd. 

‘Miss Scruple here is offering a thousand pounds.’ Bellowed the Reverend. The skilled orator he was, he didn’t really need the microphone Chapman was still clutching. He had quite the experience of talking over the din of an agitated crowd from having worked with Rudyard for so long. ‘Anyone wants to offer more? No? Well, if no one else wants to bid, then the evening will go this dear old lady-'

‘Oooh, how nice.’ Miss Scruple turned on her heels, interceding with him, addressing the people of Piffling like a regular, salad bar Boudica. ‘After all these years of doing the crossword alone, watching the sun rise and set, day in, day out, with nobody to show me any affection, I just wanted to tell you all that…'

Miss Scruple’s voice trailed off, her face crumpled like she was about to cry. But just as she was beginning to gain the unequivocal sympathy of the crowd, just as everyone began to resign themselves to the fact that the night with Rudyard was going to go to the most deserving resident of Piffling after all, she sprang up with a mischievous expression, happily shouting.

‘I WON! That's right. Final point to Dotty. Up yours, losers.’

And she proceeded to blow the biggest raspberry she could muster at the shocked onlookers. The villagers, who a moment ago would have let her have her way with Rudyard, were now riled again. There were displeased shouts and muffled insults emitted all around and the Reverend's attempt to end the bidding was thwarted by the desperate wail of Petunia Bloom, shaking the bouquet that was decorating her table a moment before.

'I’ll stick these thistles up your trellis! You hear me?!'

'Let’s try and settle this like civilised adults-' Rudyard tried to say but was discouraged by a stale Battenberg slice being lobbed at him.

‘Burn her!’ Tanya insisted again. 

‘Tear out her tonsils!’ Mrs Pettigrew demanded.

The women turned on one another - complicated dos and perms were ruined as they began to literally tear on each other’s hair. The men jumped in to separate them but only made things more chaotic. Sid tried to drag Petunia out of the thick of the wrestling match, but all he accomplished was being kicked in the nose, while Bill, who also tried to interfere, was getting crushed underfoot as a result of his actions. Bodily harm was increasing again and on the stage, the three men looked helplessly at each other. That is until realising that he’d still had the microphone, Eric Chapman did something completely unexpected.  

‘Five thousand pounds.’ He offered, shouting down the transmitter like it was but a megaphone and the mention of the sheer amount brought the violent proceedings to an instantaneous standstill. 

‘YOU SAID HOW MUCH?!’ Screamed Rudyard who had never held that much money in his possession in his entire life, unable to control himself at the mention of what seemed to him like a viable fortune.  

‘I offer five thousand pounds for a richly deserved slap-up feed with Rudyard Funn of Funn Funerals.’ Eric repeated. The unprecedented level of generosity even managed to lure Mayor Desmond out from beneath his table.  

‘But Eric, lad, you can not bid when you are being auctioned off yourself. That's highly unorthodox!’ Turning to his husband, he added. ‘Isn't it, Nigel?’ 

‘Not in the least.’ The Reverend admitted meekly. 

‘Exactly!’ Nodded Mayor Desmond with a swift one-eighty turn. ‘And may I just say how generous it is of you, Eric old boy! You are doing us all proud.’

‘That's not right.’ Moaned Bill, unfurling from the foetal position he’d assumed on the floor, removing some heels that were crushing on his spleen and kidneys. ‘He is just doing this to make us feel like terrible people.’ 

‘He thinks that the sun shines out of his backside, doesn't he?’ Agreed Tanya supportively. 

‘You are all welcome to outbid me, of course.’ Eric said, if a bit stiffly and there were displeased groans in the crowd.  

‘But five thousand pounds?! None of us could afford that!’ Pointed out Bill and Nigel took the opportunity to jump in and put an end to the misery of bidding for Rudyard. 

‘Well, that decides it! Going once, going twice the evening with Rudyard Funn is sold to Mr Eric Chapman!’ 

The villagers now could do little else but concede defeat, let go of their anger and get on with their lives. There was still some stubborn muttering down below and someone hurdled one last aimless insult at no one in particular. But the fighting itself stopped. Looking mildly embarrassed and worse for wear the people began to climb back behind their tables. With lots of clearing of throats, forcedly polite pleasantries and screeching of the chairs' legs on the polished floor, they finally assumed their positions again. Still glaring, the Reverend dusted himself down theatrically, held his palm out for the microphone and gestured with his head at Rudyard, indicating that he should scram. He practically flew off the stage, relieved. In the audience, he was greeted by a mildly shell shocked Antigone. Holding onto each other's shoulders the twins mutely established that they were both unharmed using swift nods and some level of twin telepathy. They were soon joined by Georgina who came to them still yielding the top half of a champagne bottle and limping; though only on account of having lost one of her stilettos. But just as they got ready to make a hasty and discreet exit, they were stopped once more by another nasty surprise.

Composing himself the Reverend began to smile again and conjured up some warmth and cheer in his voice as he continued with the interrupted auction. 

'Now moving on; the next item on the list is a bit of a treat. He is everyone's favourite. He puts the fun in funerals. And he helps us all to enjoy ourselves.' Taking a brief pause he announced with booming gravitas. 'It's Mr Eric Chapman! We will start the bids with a hundred pounds. Who wants to offer a hundred?' 

We waited for the people to clamour and compete for the opportunity as they always did when Chapman was involved. But today there was only curious silence greeting the prospect of procuring a date with Mr Popular. I thought the hesitation was the result of a mild shock, still affecting the populace at first. But upon closer inspection, it was easy to ascertain that there was a level of hostility to this peculiar silence. At least, based on the pouting mouths of the Piffling people and on the way they demonstratively avoided Wavering's eyes. Perceiving the animosity, unlike his husband, Mayor Desmond emitted a desperate cry.

'Oh, my giddy aunt.'

'A hundred pounds anyone?' Meanwhile, the Reverend pushed for an answer. 'It's a bargain when you think about it, isn’t it?' 

'Not when you really think about it, no.' Squalled Mrs Pertwee coldly.

'Somebody? Anybody?' Nigel looked about with increasing desperation, staring in disbelief. Chapman pinched the bridge of his nose as he began to understand what was happening. 'What is wrong with you people? At least think of how the money we raise tonight is going to a good cause. Is nobody going to step up and make a bit of sacrifice? I mean it's only one night for God's sake!' 

But the silence persisted.

'Unbelievable!' Moaned Chapman, turning his gaze towards the heavens, probably wondering how he deserved divine punishment of quite such proportions.

'Tanya?' Tried Wavering, but the young lady clearly needed more time to cool off.

'I won't be spending a hundred pounds on a night with Eric Chapman.' She scoffed. 'Because Eric Chapman is a louse.'

'How about you Petunia?' Nigel turned the florist. Usually, she would have been keen to jump at the opportunity. Today, she didn’t even bat an eye, just continued to dab a linen napkin to Sid Marlowe’s streaming nose. 

‘I don't think so, Reverend. I don't have the money to spare on a conceited, overconfident lizard like Mr Chapman.’  

‘Templar?’ Tried the Reverend, running out of options. ‘I hear you are a pretty regular member of the Chapman's Members Club…’

‘Blimey!’ Chapman cried, growing flush while Lady Templar just squinted at them over the brim of her cocktail glass. 

‘I am sorry, my darling Chap-Chappers. Can't afford it.’

‘Bit too high maintenance, is he?’ Wondered the Reverend, misinterpreting the words of Piffling’s leading socialite. ‘Sure can pick them, Vivienne.’

‘Nigel!’ Yelped Eric, turning even redder in embarrassment, while Lady Templar gritted her teeth in a nasty snarl. 

‘No.’ She sputtered in a stage whisper of sorts. ‘I mean I am skint these days.’

‘But Vivienne!’ Pleaded Chapman, causing the lady to explode with anger. 

‘Oh don’t look at me like that – I am broke, you hear me, flat out broke!’

Down in the audience, Georgie was overcoming her initial bewilderment to turn to her boss,

'Do you think we should rescue him?'

“Should” is a very strong word.' Rudyard pouted coldly.

'He did just save your ungrateful hind.' Pointed Antigone. 'It's time you returned the favour.' 

'I don't see why, when  he  should be the one thanking  me .'

'Why?!' Moaned Antigone, riled.

'Well, you know how he likes to be a bit of a hero. And I just provided him with the perfect excuse.' 

'Rudyard, we’ve got to help him.' Antigone growled ominously.

'What?!'

'We’ll feel bloody awful otherwise.'

'But but but-' Rudyard stammered as Antigone poked a pointy finger in his side.

'Go on-'

'No-' He shook his head stubbornly and with the slightest bit of terror.

'Bid for him-' Antigone demanded.

'No-' Rudyard protested. Beside him, thoroughly fed up, his assistant suddenly exploded.

‘Oh, for flip's sake.’ Shouted Georgie, drawing scandalised noises from some of the more prudish people of Piffling, who were not used to hearing such language. ‘I offer a hundred quid!’

Relieved, the Reverend rushed to take the offer.

‘Going once, going twice the night with Eric Chapman sold to Georgie Crusoe on table ten for a hundred pounds.’ 

‘Thank you, Georgie.’Chapman called down to her.

‘Don't mention it, Eric.’ Snapped Georgie, pronouncing his name like it was a curse. 

‘It's really very kind- ‘ Pressed on Chapman, beginning to tick the dogsbody off. 

‘I said DON'T mention it!’ She stomped her feet and then she muttered to herself. ‘This better not set back the helicopter fund.’

Chapman ambled awkwardly to their little group from the stage as Reverend Wavering continued with the auction, laughing at them a bit forcedly.   

‘Well, how did you like that?’

‘Very much, as it happens!’ Smiled Rudyard smugly as he just began to realise - for the first time in his life, he managed to be more interesting than Mr Sunshine Man!

‘At least we look popular for once.’ Muttered Antigone. 

‘Yeah. Well done, sir! This time you got one over on Chapman!’ Georgie clapped him around the shoulder clearly thinking along the same lines as her bosses and enjoying rubbing salt in the fresh wound on Eric’s pride. 

‘Thank you, Georgie.’ Rudyard nodded magnanimously, then sighed with contentment. ‘Right. This was all a bit hairy, wasn't it? We should probably turn in soon. See you around, Chapman.’

With that, Funn Funerals turned as one to make an exit. Stepping after them, however, Chapman halted their proceedings when he wrapped a gentle hand around Rudyard’s forearm. 

‘Now hold on for a second, Rudyard! We have some unfinished business to attend to.’

‘Oh God, it’s revenge, isn’t it?’ Muttered my friend, scared, as he tore himself out of Chapman’s clutch. 

‘No.’ Eric shook his head merrily, bemused and a bit baffled by the strong reaction. ‘We were supposed to have dinner together, remember?’

‘I don't know what you mean.’ Stammered Rudyard.

‘I just paid five thousand pounds for the pleasure of your company and I intend to have it.’

The staff team of the foremost funeral home of Piffling exchanged some wide-eyed looks. Palest and most shocked of them all was Rudyard himself, who turned back to Chapman in a state of befuddlement.  

‘B-b-but…! Right now?’ 

‘No time like the present, eh?’ Shrugged Chapman a bit shyly, reaching his hand out again in a gesture of half invitation, half conciliation. ‘What do you say, Rudyard? No funny business, no mystery. Just the two of us, hanging out?’

There was a beat of silence during which I watched my best friend intensely. I had an excellent view of the way his expression of concern melted away, the way it had been replaced with something more tender, where I was sat at his top pocket. He lifted his right, tentatively, like he was about to thrust it into Chapman’s palm, ready to elope when Antigone cried out. 

‘Wait Rudyard. Don't go. It’s a trap.’ She wailed. 

‘It’s not a trap, it’s dinner.’ Eric corrected her patiently, getting only a dirty glance from the mortician in return.  

‘Food in a trap, it’s called bait. That’s the cheese and he's the mouse.’

I scolded Antigone instantly, of course, urging her to apologize, forgetting in my righteous indignation that she didn’t speak mouse. But before Rudyard had a chance to interpret between us, Georgie cut in. 

‘She's right, Chapman. Time to come clean and tell us what's going on. Because I am great at extracting confessions. And we can either do it the hard way or in the harder way.’ She threatened, punching her palm. 

‘Nothing's going on, what are you even talking about?’ Eric sighed. 

‘Just with you offering to dine with Rudyard, kind of seems like you've got an ulterior motive. Is this a wind-up?’ Georgie crossed her arms in front of her chest in a display of distrust. 

‘No, it is not a “wind up.” Objected Chapman, growing agitated.  

‘So it's a tax scam then?’ Antigone guessed. I could see where she was coming from; she’d only ever been asked out to dine with someone as an accessory to a tax fiddle. 

‘I promise this is all but a perfectly benign, above-board invitation for a meal.’

‘Are you sure it's not a tax scam? It fits all the facts!’ Squinted Rudyard’s sister. 

‘It still could be.’ Added Georgie talking as if Chapman wasn’t even present. ‘Don't you get a massive tax break if you donate to charity?’

‘Now look here, all of you.’ Rudyard suddenly burst out. He just stood in quiet for the past few minutes, growing redder in the face the more his team insisted that Chapman would not want to spend the night with him unless it was for a scheme. ‘Stop it. Clearly, Chapman isn't such a bad fellow, in a way. We've been really quite unfair on him in the past.’

Snapping their heads around it was the women’s turn to stare in disbelief. Meanwhile, Rudyard left their side in favour of planting himself firmly by Eric Chapman.  

‘Rudyard, stop saying things!’ Georgie demanded as she regained her composure, but a dinner invitation from one of Piffling’s most influential residents had made Rudyard confident and he was in no mood to listen to anybody, about anything.  

‘And though we know from recent experience that his table manners are atrocious-’ He continued teasingly, causing Eric to cut in with gentle scorn. 

‘Rudyard.’

‘I can't see why shouldn't we have him over for dinner again.’

‘Because we’ve never underestimated his capacity for evil before.’ Georgie pleaded. ‘So let’s not start doing it today.’

‘Look, Georgie, I am sure that he is a decent chap in his own, unpredictable way.’ Rudyard argued, causing his sister to erupt in a sudden tirade. 

‘Shut up! Shut up Rudyard, just shut up, shut up.’

‘Antigone-’

‘Stop defending him. It's weird.’

‘Nothing peculiar about it.’ Muttered Rudyard, looking flush. 

‘I still think something's going on, sir.’ Added Georgie. 

‘Don't be paranoid.’

‘Rudyard, he never liked you before.’ Antigone syllabised. ‘Actually, in point of fact, he was up on that stage, not five minutes ago, calling you all sorts of things.’ 

‘It was strictly to stop events going down on a lurid path.’ Eric tried to explain himself, only drawing the mortician’s wrath and attention on himself. 

‘No, you did it because you've always hated us and you don't care whether he lives or dies!’

‘That's ridiculous.’ Said Chapman firmly.

‘Is it?’ Cried Antigone and stepping up to Chapman she grabbed him by the lapels, shaking the much larger man violently. ‘Tell me that you care about him, Eric. Tell me that you care!’

‘Stop shaking me!’ Begged Eric, but she did not seem to hear him.  

‘Listen, Eric. Perhaps you planned this whole thing from the start, just to- Antigone, stop shaking the man!’ Georgie tried to calm her agitated employer.

But just as she was commanded to stop, Antigone’s violent attack caused Chapman’s tailcoat suit to break. 

‘You tore off my lapels.’ Eric observed, not entirely shocked. The Funns had a habit of ruining all his suits.  

‘Here, you should have them back.’ Antigone handed over the shiny black pieces of material, a bit cowed by the strength of her own rage. 

‘Basically, we think you are just trying to get Rudyard alone!’ Georgie pressed on which made Eric throw his hands, still clutching his disengaged lapels, in the air. 

‘Yes, I am!’ 

‘I knew it! You are going to dress him as lettuce and feed him to the snails, aren't you?’ Antigone accused. 

'Why would I want to do that?!' Eric was practically screaming in frustration by now. 

'Because he'd finally beaten you in your own game.' Suggested Georgie.

'And because it's an extremely slow death.' Added Antigone morbidly.

'Enough, both of you.' Rudyard commanded, throwing the weight of all his remaining dignity in his words. 'Typical! Even after all of this, you can’t accept the idea that someone would like me for who I really am, can you?'

'Now that you mention it, no!'

'Antigone! You’re very insulting, you know that?' Rudyard muttered, obviously hurt. Grabbing Chapman's shoulder he urged his rival to turn around, nudging him a bit to get him to hurry away. Walking past Georgie and Antigone in tow of the other man, he called over his shoulder. 'Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to wine, dine and unwind my spine after finally accomplishing a brilliant day's work.' 

'Oh, will you have wine too?' Chapman asked, enthused. 'We shall see if we can't rustle up a bottle of Châteauneuf Du Pape. It should get some colour back in your cheeks.'

'It was a figure of speech.' Growled Rudyard, rolling his eyes.

'Then how about a couple of strong lattes?'

'I’d like cinnamon in mine.' Nodded Rudyard, a bit happier this time. 

But before they could disappear outside the Village Hall, Antigone shot after them.

'Wait. Rudyard.' She said gently and this time Chapman stepped a little away to grant the twins a shred of privacy. 'Are you sure we can’t persuade you not to go through with this?'

'Yes!' He nodded firmly.

'Well, then sir.' Shrugged Georgie, joining them. 'Go and get hammered.'

'Now look here, Georgie.' Rudyard sniffed indignantly. 'I shall have that latte and Chapman can think himself lucky.'

'That's the spirit.' Georgie boxed him gently in the shoulder, smiling. 'Go get him, tiger.' 

Chapter Text

 

'Are you ok?' Asked Chapman as the two men stepped outside to the balmy Piffling night and Rudyard shuddered lightly beside him. 'That was a really ugly scene.' 

'I'm fine.' Rudyard groaned, unconvincing. 'She just can’t stand me having something that she hasn’t.'  

'Who? Antigone? I think she is just worried about you.' Eric said amicably, adding with a mournful frown 'And also- well, I can’t shake the feeling that she actually resents me. On a personal level.' 

'Chapman.' Sighed Rudyard, syllabising like he was explaining something to an equally stubborn and irrational toddler. 'You move in across the square, you open up your own funeral home – why do you think it’s so strange that we don’t get on?'

'Do we not?' Eric looked at him, his eyes widening almost as in fright. 'Because Rudyard, I thought…'

'Yes?' Rudyard urged his rival when Chapman's voice unexpectedly trailed off. His lips were still milling words that refused to manifest as Rudyard watched him, his head cocked to the side, his expression is of honest befuddlement.

'Well, I mean after what you've said I…' Eric tried again, stammering, unable to quite express what he wanted to say under the scrutiny of Rudyard's dark, intense gaze. Maybe it was precisely the lack of paranoia, that sudden appearance of uncontested attention making the proprietor of Chapman's so self-conscious.

'What? ' 

'Guess I was just hoping that all that animosity was just a joke.' Chapman finally shrugged, sounding a bit defeated. 'That we liked each other. Deep down.'

'Chapman,' Rudyard began, his mouth a hard, displeased line, looking like a man tasked with breaking some sobering news, fearing what the recipients might decide to do to the messenger. 'I can say to you, unequivocally, like one man to another…' 

But this time it was my best friend's turn to lose his courage, his determination capitulating him somewhere halfway through what was promising to be a genuine moment.

'Yes?' Eric leaned in expectantly, his attentive openness a mirror of Rudyard's from before. 

But words seemed to betray Rudyard as much as they did Chapman. Rudyard drew a couple of deep breaths like a deep-sea diver preparing to plunge, before his whole demeanour abruptly collapsed, shutting in on itself. 

'That we’re both busy men so we should cut this short.' He concluded with his usual evasive irksomeness. The building tension escaped the funeral directors like the air escaping to vacuum, leaving behind unsaid words that threatened to rupture two pairs of lungs. Rudyard tried to ease the moment with some playful bickering, but his half-smile sat on his lips as askew as his bow tie. 'Now, you said something about lattes, but I am not sure where we can acquire them. I mean, the Sharp Drop has reopened under "new management", but I doubt that Harriet would let me back.'  

'Why is that, you think?' Eric asked, a bit reluctant to warm up to the change of topic, but following, always following suit nevertheless.   

'Frankly, I don't know.' Rudyard shrugged and he dared to be indignant. 'She made certain remarks about me spying on her patrons, which turned into vows…'

'Vows?'

“I’ll get you if it’s the last thing I do!” and that sort of thing.' He waved his right in a gesture of an annoyed sort of dismissal. 'You know, sometimes I think I'll never understand women. Anyway, we can't go back to Funn Funerals, I am banned from the Yacht Club and everywhere else's shut, so-'

He peered up at Chapman, all too happy to pass the baton of responsibility for planning the rest of the evening. But where usually Chapman was keen to grab the hem and take command, he now only offered with a sort of timidity.

'I mean, you are always welcome at the Chapman's Members Club.'

This sounded as much as a sales pitch as an invite. A desperate bid to sell Rudyard a prospect of a dinner Chapman was essentially entitled to anyway. 'We have the coffee machine of course, plus all the pastry you can ask for; croissant, creamy eclairs and cannoli- 

'Cannoli?!' Rudyard almost hiccoughed as he had a sudden flashback to a previous, disastrous date of Chapman's. 

'Cannoli it is then.' Nodded Eric, enthused. 

'No, I just meant-' Whatever protests Rudyard had in store, they dried up, evaporating under the full impact of Eric's dazzling smile. But where he would usually give in with the reluctance of someone easing their clutch on a lifebuoy, today he almost sounded expectant. 'Ah, damn, that's not a bad idea at all. And I hear that Chapman's is just the place to procure a pub lunch.'

He made the last part sound a bit ironic like it was supposed to be a remark about one of Eric's many pretentious enterprises, but there was no real bite to his words. Regardless, Eric's face fell. 

'Oh, god.' He muttered in distress, causing Rudyard to narrow his eyes.

'What now?' 

'Nothing, nothing. It's just… A pub lunch?' Eric moaned fretfully. 

'What's wrong with-' 

'I should be offering to spirit you away to Paris.' Eric made an aborted gesture as if he was going to wrangle his hands in a troubled way. 'We could be in the Jules Verne in less than an hour in my helicopter, nibble on appetisers in the Epicure-' 

'Gesundheit.'

'Or while the night away in the Moulin Rouge. That sort of thing.' 

'Chapman. Are you trying to impress me?' Rudyard asked, smiling and I haven't seen him as smugly delighted in a long time as he was now.

'Perhaps. Maybe.' Eric begrudgingly admitted, until his defences broke down completely and he blurted. 'Yes entirely!' 

'Chapman, Chapman, Chapman.' Rudyard shook his head with a near ear-splitting grin of the most self-satisfied kind. 'When will you ever learn that all these gimmicks are perfectly unnecessary? All these fancy modes of transport and pretentious french cuisine are not what I want from you at all.' 

His deeply patronising tone would have put off anyone. But it seemed that Chapman had known him long enough to discover a smidgeon of sincerity in his thickly vainglorious mannerism. 

'What  is  that you want from me, Rudyard?' He asked, voice full of confusion, exasperation. And there was maybe a hint of wistfulness to it too. 

'Your company. Simple as that.' Rudyard nodded, far too conceited, too busy lecturing to notice the implications of his words. That is until he heard the soft, almost imperceptible exhale of "Oh." escaping Chapman. Until he noted the way Eric's brows shot towards his hairline, the way his eyes widened.  

Now Rudyard was in a rush to redeem some semblance of aloofness and preserve his detachment, so he jokingly quipped, with the aural equivalent of an awkward punch to Chapman's shoulder. 

'Just pure Eric Chapman and none of that half-baked, exquisite nonsense!' But that somehow only seemed to make things worse, so Rudyard quieted with an expression on his face that belied how he was trying to discreetly accomplish the impossible feat of actually, physically swallowing his own traitorous tongue. 

'Yes. Quite.' Eric muttered, looking a bit lost himself, as the involuntary little confession plummeted between them like a soft, living creature that had its wings clipped mid-flight. Unsure how to approach the small, battered thing in their midst, Eric finally offered. 'So how about I cook dinner tonight – something really elaborate?' 

Rudyard, who was staring at the ground in front of him in a manner that suggested that he could actually see the spot where his limp words had fallen, looked up at Chapman at that, an echo of his previous, priggish smile playing on his lips.

'Can't your chefs rustle up something for you?' He teased like Chapman was some kind of silver spoon suckling royalty and not an enterprising sort of businessman with almost supernatural tenacity and relentless charm.

'They would have closed up for the evening by now.' Eric shrugged, unaware of Rudyard's snark. Or dismissive of it.

'Surely yours is the building that never sleeps?' Rudyard nagged, relieved to be back on the familiar territory of banter, but Chapman stubbornly refused to engage properly. When he answered, his voice was almost apologetic. 

'The bar, the bowling alley and the swimming baths were open till midnight, but given that's almost two in the morning-' 

'That late?' Rudyard tensed and looked about himself as if he was expecting some authority to come springing on him. 'Suppose I ought to go to bed…'

'I mean, you can if you really insist but-' Eric shrugged, seeing how miserable Rudyard was. But he continued in an almost involuntary spasm, appearing a bit surprised himself by his own torrent of words and the quiet plea in them. 'Stay here, won’t you? Please stay!' 

'Very well, Chapman.' Rudyard conceded almost instantly, blinking in shock. 'I accept your terms.'

'Brilliant! Thank you.' Eric nodded, so relieved he forgot to be self-conscious for a moment. He just beamed at Rudyard as if his rival just bequeathed on him the honours of being knighted or something of that significance. 'Great. After you, Rudyard.' 

They trudged towards Chapman's in a sort of silence that was fairly amicable, even in its awkwardness. Though they would only look at each other from the corner of their eyes. And while they both appeared lost in thought, I could tell from my vantage point that they were still intensely aware of each other. The tension to Eric's shoulder was obvious as he turned to unlock his front door like he was bracing himself for entering behind enemy lines and not his very own foyer. I also did not miss how Rudyard took the opportunity when his back was turned, trying in vain to smooth and straighten his disaster of a tailcoat suit. 

We entered Chapman's sleek and ultra-modern entrance hall just as it was flooded with light from designer wall fixtures and a grand chandelier. In the far corner, a soothing water feature spluttered to life, imitating the sound of a babbling brook and relaxing but adequately sombre music began to play from invisible speakers. The overall effect was slightly overwhelming in its perfection, like biting into a cake expecting bland Victoria sponge, only to find out that it was icing all the way. I felt a sudden and unexpected wave of nostalgia for the sight of cobwebs and the smell of thick layers of dust burning inside rusting radiators. 

'Welcome to Chapman's where we put the fun in funerals.' Eric gestured around, slipping into his death bed salesman persona as he tended to when he was nervous, seemingly forgetting that we were both intimately familiar with his renowned institution. 

'Are you alright, Chapman?' Sniggered Rudyard, narrowing his eyes at him in bemusement.

'Super, couldn't be happier, super.' Eric rushed to affirm in one breath, the tiniest hint of trembling in his voice forcing him to clean his throat. 'Why?'

'You know I've been here before?' Rudyard smirked.

'Of course, that's right.'

'Multiple times, in fact.'

'Haven't had the full tour yet though, have you?' Eric scowled like he had forgotten something, looking about the foyer that was only a mere introduction to the vast, sprawling empire that lay beneath us, above our heads and beyond the doors of Chapman's fancy lift.

'Well I mean I've been at the fourth wing when you held that public reception.' Shrugged Rudyard, thoughtfully.

'Hm.'

'And I broke into your basement just before last Christmas.' My best friend listed.

'I remember, yes.' Eric nodded a bit stiffly at the mention of that particular incident. Regardless he persisted with his offer. 'But there's still the monorail and the bowling alley. What do you say? I'd love to show you around.'

'Some other time, perhaps.' Rudyard shuddered, looking understandably underwhelmed by the prospect to fully behold what he was up against with his own, modest, crumbling premises.  

'Fair enough.' Nodded Chapman in ascent.

'Not that I don't like what you've done with the place, mind.' Rudyard muttered dismissively, not sounding quite convinced about that himself.  

'No, I understand.' 

'Well if you will keep on at me - I just think it’s a bit flash, isn’t it?' He finally cried, like Chapman all but insisted that he explained himself. 'All these happy colours. Not a patch of our set-up. Look, there’s not a speck of dust anywhere.' 

He looked about himself, scowling and for what it's worth, he should have been clashing with his surroundings. In his old fashioned, ill-fitting suit, with the deep, dark circles under his slightly manic eyes and the imperious asceticism of his hollowed, narrow face Rudyard was everything that Chapman's isn't. Yet his presence, juxtaposed to the cheery modernity and the oppressive jolliness, somehow seemed to only emphasise the purpose of all that streamlined, high-end professionalism. 

'Ah, there it is.' Eric shook his head fondly as he was no doubt counting down the minutes until Rudyard complained about something. It seemed to put him at ease, the predictability of that stubborn, mild animosity and he suggested with a chuckle. 'Tell you what, Rudyard. Why don't you put your feet up and relax while I make ourselves some coffee? There’s some chocolate truffles in the bowl there, help yourself. And over here! Cream slices. Cinnamon whirls. Chocolate éclairs.' 

Eric gestured to a corner, designed as a sort of makeshift waiting room. It was an essential feature as Chapman's seemed to attract crowds on any given day. Rudyard ambled over a bit reluctantly, mostly attracted by the prospect of truffles, mumbling.

'Yes, alright.' He slumped on a fake leather ottoman that had the most soothing colour of lavender humanity has ever devised. Bouncing, enjoying the perfect springiness of the epitome of carpentry, he admitted magnanimously. 'Has to be said, though, these sofas are very comfy.' 

Eric was biting back the most inordinately pleased smile, slightly distracted by the sight of Rudyard making himself at home at his funeral parlour. He had to shake himself a little to snap out of his stupor.

'Now, where was I? Ah yes, lattes.' 

Turning on his heels he trudged towards the back of Chapman's, disappearing behind a discreet sliding door. Meanwhile, left in the privacy of the most exuberant entrance hall in all of Piffling, Rudyard finally helped himself to some chocolate. He gently halved one scrumptious bite and popped some of it in his top pocket where I was sitting. I told him that I wouldn't be offended by a bit more of the delicacy, but he merely shook his head. 

'You'll spoil your appetite. And God knows this is our only chance to consume Chapman out of house and home!' 

So we sat in silence, full of expectations with nothing but the endless loop of elevator music to keep us company. Comfortable as he was, Rudyard couldn't bear to stay still for long; tearing himself from the inviting armchair he'd walked around in the foyer, running his fingers over surfaces in almost superstitious awe. Perhaps imagining what it would be like to have the capital to introduce the rich velvets and cool marbles to Funn Funerals too. He paused by a skilled but simple sketch of a cobbled street that hung framed on the wall; courtesy of Chapman's penpal, Strahil. He continued towards a sort of a trophy cupboard Eric placed against the largest wall of the expansive foyer and inspected its contents. He scowled at the Mr Sunshine pageant trophy sitting in there. He rolled his eyes at the Nobel Peace prize placed right next to it. Finally, he blinked in confusion at the small porcelain statue of a kitten in a bonnet that was put between them.

Stepping away from the cupboard like he was zapped and jolted by a small current, he looked about anxiously, muttering.

'What is taking him so long…?' Then he took a deep breath and billowed. 'CHAPMAN?!'  

'Over here, Rudyard.' It came from the back. Following the sound of Eric's voice and the scent trail of coffee, we arrived at the immaculate kitchen of Chapman's. 

Eric stood in front of a worktop, stripped to his shirtsleeves, blending in with of the monochromatic background of the steel grey and lime-washed white of the high tech kitchen as he bent over a yet empty pot and a sheet of paper, as well as a small pile of various ingredients.

'Coffee's all around.' He gestured at two tall cups without looking up and Rudyard snatched one eagerly.

'Wonderful! I needed this.' He shuddered with pleasure and took a generous gulp, only to pull away instantly. 'Ow. It's hot.'  

'Now, I was thinking about making some lasagne. You could do with the carbs and the protein.' Eric explained, peering up from his paper with a tiny frown of concern. 'Did Antigone cut your rations again? I don't mean to offend, but you look like a feeble little weed.'  

'Only until we buy back the kettle.' Rudyard shrugged and pulled minutely on his waistcoat again like that was going to help. 

'Thought so.'     

'Yes, alright so where is your dinner preparation inventory?' Rudyard circled the counter, shrugging off his jacket in the process, trying in vain to peer over Chapman's shoulder. Eric took a step to the side to grant him a glimpse of an array of vegetables and a glistening portion of beef mince.

'I mean… I’ve got the recipe? That will probably do.' Eric contemplated his setup with wilting confidence in the face of Rudyard's outrage. 

'Probably do? Is that what you are aiming for, “probably do”?' He scolded, partly because he wasn't going to let the opportunity to criticise Chapman go to waste and partly because actual cooking was a rare occurrence in the barren kitchen of the Funns' home and was treated, conclusively, with disproportionate fuss, almost like some sacred ritual.

'OK, please enlighten me as to how you, the clearly more experienced cook, would prepare lasagne?' Argued back Chapman, growing a bit defensive and mildly irked, his voice full of sarcasm. 

'What is that supposed to mean?' Rudyard demanded, squinting with suspicion. 

'It means that I once spent a year with Heston Blumenthal, mastering the art of multi-sensory cooking, whereas I am not sure you even know how to microwave a curry. Let alone make one.' Eric boasted, stiff and snobbish.

'Are you saying that I don’t know how to cook?' Quaffed Rudyard in an almost comical display of outrage.  

'Pretty much, yes.' 

'How dare you? You tasted my mallard at Christmas.' 

'My point exactly.' 

Rudyard opened his mouth a couple of times, unable to formulate an adequately snatching response to such an insult at first.  

'I don’t need to have worked in a gourmet restaurant to know when my dinner is burnt.' He finally said, menacingly, only to add with his head cocked up with pride. 'Besides, I can’t see why people keep assuming that I am helpless in the kitchen when cooking actually combines my two favourite things in the world: rigid adherence to a recipe and solid scheduling.' 

Jostling Chapman gently out of the way, even though he had a perfect view of the list of instructions and ingredients, he began to read.

'Now, let’s see. Olive oil? Check. Beef mince? Check.'  

'What are you doing?' Eric sputtered, his eyes glued to spot where their sides lay flush as Rudyard tried to crowd him out.  

'Helping.'  

'For the love of God, don’t.' Eric groaned in exasperation but his complaint fell on deaf ears.  

'What about onions?' Rudyard asked, tapping the offending word on the recipe.  

'What about them?'  

'You don’t have any.' 

Eric stared at the counter like it was the first time he saw it like it wasn't him who tried to prepare everything in advance.

'Shucks.' He sighed, shoulders stooping in defeat. 'You are right.' 

He nipped into a supply cupboard and returned with an armful of red onions, that rolled about as he gracelessly plopped them on the flat of the stainless steel worktop.  

'Allow me.' Rudyard offered, catching one of the onions just before it toppled over the counter. Placing it firmly back on the table, he looked about himself, huffing in frustration, sounding like Chapman's kitchen was messy as a rubbish heap and not the most clinically sterile place he'd ever entered; counting both St Pratt's and Antigone's mortuary. 'Dear God, where are the knives?' 

'Now that’s a sentence I don’t like to ever hear you say.' Chuckled Chapman darkly, but he gestured at a drawer all the same. 'To the left.'

Eric started on the meal prep, measuring portions, heating oil and while he said nothing when Rudyard began dicing the onions, he watched his rival with interest from the corner of his eyes. The thing is that my friend's technique may have been slightly amateurish but it was practised and efficient all the same. In a way that seemed to put even a trained professional like Chapman at ease. And, in his defence, Rudyard would have been completely fine if he didn't allow his eyes to wander towards Eric and wouldn't have let himself to grow distracted by the sight of the artisan flourish of Chapman's cooking. That and by a pair of exposed forearms, perhaps. 

'Ow.' He suddenly yelped as his blade met his finger where it was supposed to dice food and he cradled his throbbing hand to his chest. 

'What happened?' Eric snapped his head up, abandoning his own chopping board instantly. 'Did you cut yourself?' 

'Don't think so. I'm not bleeding, am I?' Asked Rudyard, thrusting his hand blindly towards Chapman. Strangely, while Rudyard was perfectly happy putting together human remains like they were but pieces of a giant jigsaw, the sight of a mere drop of his own blood had the power to make him squeamish. 

Eric took his rival's hand in his, turning it gently this way and that until he finally discovered the minute cut. 

'Yes, you are. A little bit. Can I get you a plaster or anything?' 

'Don't patronise me, Chapman.' Hissed Rudyard in offence. 

'Fine.' Huffed Eric as a response but the moment he eased his grip on his hand, Rudyard added in a much more timid voice.

'I didn't say no.'

Stifling a disbelieving smile Chapman grabbed a nearby first aid kit and fished out a blue plaster. Renewing his grip on Rudyard's hand he tugged him nearer to a tap in an ungainly tandem, an awkward sort of waltz and gently rinsed the cut. Rudyard watched his ministrations stiffly, unmoving except when Erc mutely commanded him with a small gesture of a touch to reach nearer to the icy flow of the water, to lift his arm back up. Finally, Chapman towelled his hand dry and wrapped the plaster around the offending pinky, inspecting that the small patch of dressing was in place with a truly exuberant amount of care. Having no more excuse left to hold on to Rudyard he hesitated to release him for a moment, brushing a thumb across Rudyard's protruding knuckles. As he looked up and held Rudyard’s gaze stubbornly, their fingers still entwined, some unnamed emotion seemed to ricochet between them. We've been here before, I couldn't help but think, at this particular precipice. A leap of faith, never taken. A threshold approached many times over, never once crossed. 

Tonight wasn't going to be the night for it either, judging by the way Rudyard trained his eyes on the immaculate floor tiles, no longer able to meet the challenge in Eric’s gaze. Chapman let go, reluctantly and walked past him and back to his work station, nudging his rival’s shoulder amicably with his own.      

‘Go on, make us some white sauce, won't you?’ He said evenly, cheerily, the intensity of him suddenly gone. ‘I'll brown this meat in the meantime.’

Rudyard cleared his throat so he could speak but found no voice left to use. So he just nodded and shuffled after Eric, returning to his dicing. He worked silently, not letting his focus wander this time round. But the ease of Eric as he moved beside him, seemingly without a care in the world, helped to wash the tension out him too, the almost painful stiffness of his shoulders abating slowly. Soon they were working away in a nice, quiet rhythm with few words and glances spared between them. It was the attuned muteness of people who work well together, for whom little negotiation is needed to reach a mutual understanding. The lasagne was prepared in what must have been some kind of record-setting speed and Eric placed it in a fancy industrial oven with a proud little huff of satisfaction, eyeing it for a moment as the grated cheese on top began to bubble in the heat of the artificial inferno. Turning around he braced his back against the glass door and cocked an eyebrow at Rudyard as he announced.

‘The lasagne is doing fine. It will need about an hour.’

‘I see.’ Said Rudyard in an uncertain voice, shifting his weight from one leg to another. Without something to do, some perpetual scheduled activities there was only one thing left. The very thing Rudyard dreaded more than anything in the world; socialising. ‘What now?’ 

‘We could talk? To each other? Maybe?’ Eric chuckled miserably. Regretful but not offended

‘Talk?’ Rudyard quipped, his voice a few octaves higher than normal, worrying his fresh plaster. ‘That’d take up ten minutes and then what would we do?’

‘You are not very good at this, are you?’ Chuckled Eric with a mournful sort of amusement, tilting his head to the side as he studied Rudyard.   

‘At what?’ Rudyard barked, slightly miffed.  

‘Flirting.’

‘I thought we were talking.’ My friend riposted with a bit more confidence this time as the accusation felt like the beginning of an argument. And he was, at least, good at those.

‘Flirting, talking, same difference.’ Eric shrugged. ‘I mean I just thought it would be nice to just have a chat for once. Without the tricks and pranks and the endless bickering. Never had a chance before, have we?’

‘No!’ Rudyard admitted, thinking back to the handful of times when he’d put aside the rivalry he created in his head and found that he’d almost felt sympathy towards his nemesis. Like when he’d helped Eric with his Mayoral campaign and, embarrassingly enough, almost admitted to liking him in public. Or the time they tried to catch a serial killer. 'Always at the same things, just never really…’

‘No, never really, exactly….’ Hummed Eric.

Meanwhile, Rudyard suddenly nodded and attempted a dignified but compassionate expression. Pulling himself to his full height, he offered. 

‘So. How are you, Chapman?’

Rudyard's funeral foe blinked a couple times in shock at that. Then an ear-splitting grin of mild, fond, amused vexation appeared on Eric’s face. He humoured Rudyard nevertheless.  

‘Oh, well, I’m… I’m fine, Rudyard, thank you.’ He said with exuberant grace, stifling a little laugh of confused merriment.  

‘Ah, glad to hear it!’ Rudyard nodded again with utter seriousness. 

‘And yourself?’ Eric continued, clearly barely keeping down a giggle that threatened to bubble up in him. 

‘Yeah, not too bad, thanks.’ The other funeral director answered, a bit more uncertain this time. 

With the topic at hand exhausted the embers of the conversation started to die down and in the ensuing silence, Eric finally burst with mirth.  

‘Well. That was excruciating.’ He snorted, pinching the bridge of his nose in a gesture of a building tension migraine.

'Look, I’m pretty new to all this, so less of the attitude.' Rudyard snapped in defence, causing Chapman to look up at him with a gentle smirk to his lips.  

'Come on, Rudyard, we can do better than this.' 

He grabbed their lattes and gestured with his head for Rudyard to follow him. Through another sliding door, he'd lead us to the first floor of the Member's club, with the restaurant and lounge area. The place was empty and quiet, but not in an eerie sort of way you'd expect from a funeral parlour; the mood lighting clicked on just as we entered and the many tables all waited, set with starched linens, creating the atmosphere of a grand ball that was to take place any minute. Eric placed the lattes on a nearby table and pulled a chair politely out for Rudyard who'd accepted the gesture absent-mindedly, worrying his lip between his teeth, deep in contemplation. 

'Here, have a seat. I'll be back, just hold on a tic!' Eric motioned him to stay put and disappeared somewhere again. I clambered laboriously out of my friend's pocket and assumed pride of place inside a bouquet of a floral display in the middle of the table to get a better view of the events. From there I already had an excellent visual of the befuddled, curious expression of Rudyard as he looked up upon the return of Chapman. His rival proceeded to place a rectangular cardboard box of suspicious familiarity in front of us and was now busying himself with lighting a pair of tea candles in the middle with a weathered-looking silver Zippo.

'What's that supposed to be, Chapman?' Rudyard gestured at the item, even though he knew very well what it was, which made Eric scratch his forehead in a troubled way.

'I thought Boggle was your game.'

'It is. I just didn't know  you  played.'

'That's because I don't.' Admitted Eric, causing Rudyard to cross his arms in a renewed fit of suspicion. 

'And yet you still maintain that you haven't planned this whole thing from the start?' He accused.

'Oh no. I only hoped…' Eric mumbled, his voice unusually insecure as he lightly touched the soft, worn lid of the board game. 'I wouldn't have thought…' 

And that was some idea - Chapman purchasing a pristine version of Rudyard's favourite, old fashioned word game without any real hope to ever have a chance to play it. And while on a surface level Rudyard seemed unaffected, I could sense a sort of unspooling taking place in him, something heady and thrilling, like the rush of blood upon the release of a stale breath. The urgency to his hands, as he hurried to open the box, was complying before his mouth could.

'Very well, Chapman. But fair warning - I only play to win.' 

The coy slant of his smile seemed to make Chapman giddy as well and they scattered the game pieces about with the intense excitement of naughty schoolchildren, just short of bursting into hushed giggles. But as the first surge of prescience had worn off, Rudyard's eyes wandered back to puzzle over his rival, whose handsome countenance presently crumpled under the weight of his own ardent concentration. 

'Well, I’ve still got one question to ask you, Chapman.' He quipped, fortifying himself, just as Eric sat across him, writing tools and paper at hand.

'Shoot.' He nodded in permission, wetting the graphite at the end of his pencil with the tip of his tongue. 

'Why did you come to the island?' My friend asked solemnly, causing his rival to roll his eyes towards the heavens. 

'Rudyard- ' 

'No, no I don't mean it like  that .' The funeral director rushed to clarify, making an excited motion with his hand almost to physically disperse the confusion. 'It's just… Well, you can do anything! Anytime, anywhere! And everyone knows it! So why don't you just go around, sailing the Azores with a dozen bikinis models? Or-or-or fix jet skis in Venezuela or whatever? Why come to this festering little island instead?'  

Chapman’s answering frown was so troubled, so genuinely pained that Rudyard was momentarily unable to face the scrutiny of it. So he averted his gaze to the Boggle board instead, jotting some words down as his sparring partner quietly asked.

'Is this your opinion on Piffling?' 

'It's what you must think.' Shrugged Rudyard in a fit of despondency, his eyes trained stubbornly on his sheet.

There was a momentary lull and only the scratching of scribing utensils made a sound as Chapman hesitated over his response and wrote down some ideas instead

'I happen to think that this is a small, but mighty island.' 

'Still. All the places to choose from, why’d you come here?' Rudyard stabbed his pencil in the air, risking a look at Eric.

'I can’t tell you that.' Chapman said with finality. It was hard to decide whether he was frowning at his game sheet because he couldn't think of any other solutions or because of the nature of Rudyard's interrogation made him uncomfortable. 

'Did it all start “a long time ag-“ Huffed Rudyard in frustration but Eric rushed to interrupt.

'No! Quite recently, as a matter of fact!' He folded his hands back in front of himself, like he was but negotiating the details of a lavish funeral. 'But that’s all I’m able to say right now.'

'Fine. Be enigmatic, if it gives you any comfort.' Rudyard groused with no real malice, busy crossing his "t"s and dotting his "i"s. 

'It's a long story. But I’ll tell you all about it… one day…' Eric trailed off as always, staring slightly to the side and the middle distance. 

'Is that a threat?'

'It's a promise.' Eric sighed, then he added with a tad more levity. 'Anyway, it’s a boring subject.'

'Right.' Mumbled Rudyard in a begrudging sort of ascent, gesturing at the game. 'What have you got Chapman? And remember: if two or more players come up with the same word, it is removed from all players' lists. Off you go.'

'Two. Attend and lattes.'

'Not bad.' Rudyard smacked his lips a bit condescendingly. 'Not bad at all.' 

'Well, what have you got?'

'Fourteen. Alone, lone, loner, loners, ever, love, loves, loved, one, must, not, detect, act, acted, detest.'

'That's impressive.' Whistled Chapman appreciatively as Rudyard rattled off his answers and my friend beamed, self-assured.

'I know it is.' If his words caused Eric's expression to pinch into an impish sort of half-smile, it was all the better.  

'Alright. Fine. You may have had it easy until now, Rudyard-'

'Easy?!'

'But Eric Chapman is back in the game. I'm going for the top score and I am in it to win it.'

'Over my dead body.' Growled Rudyard with what sounded like sincere anger, but was mitigated by the expectant glint to his eyes and his smirk, reflecting Chapman's.

The undertakers attacked their game sheets again, Rudyard with intense concentration. Chapman, on the other hand, showed less enthusiasm, despite his previous challenge and threat.

'What about you?' He asked, lowering his pencil, allowing his eyes to trail the features of Rudyard as he bent over his answers, chewing his pen. I couldn't entirely blame him. Lost to the game, my friend looked unguarded, youthful and surprisingly alluring. Presently there wasn't a trace of his usual irked self-consciousness to him and the lack of skittish alertness was lending him a certain poise and grace only a privileged few were privy to. Come to think of it, the only people who'd ever seen him so much at ease were me, Antigone, Georgie- 

And now Eric Chapman. 

'What about me?' Rudyard responded, slightly distracted as he was getting busy shaking up the Boggle board again.

'Why didn't  you  ever leave?' 

'Why would I ever want to leave?' Rudyard snapped his head up, slightly scandalised.

'To seek your fortunes in the cruel, wide world?' Eric shrugged, making a sort of encompassing motion with his pencil.

Surprisingly, where Rudyard would usually dismiss such an absurd idea, today he paused, ballpoint hovering over a fresh white sheet and gave the matter its due consideration. Piffling, much like the back of his hand, was something he paid no heed to unless it was giving him trouble. But the idea of parting with it still sent a jolt of phantom pain down to his very core, a spark of terror harping on his spine. And yet. 

'I thought about going to San Marino once.' He admitted with the slightest undercurrent of defensiveness to his voice. Because it was hard not to assume how provincial must a life lived entirely on a mile-long island have looked to Eric Chapman - undertaker extraordinaire and presumably the most well-travelled individual of the northern hemisphere. 

'So why aren’t you there yet?' Eric wondered, smiling into his crema as he went to take a sip. There was no blame, just bouts of sincere curiosity and perhaps a gentle nudge to his cadence. 

'Because I've settled on Vatican City.' Rudyard waved the question off. Scowling, he added, sounding both righteously proud and mildly flustered at once. 'Besides, Chapman. You'll find that if there’s quite literally one thing I know about it’s undertaking.' 

'So this job; it's all you've ever wanted?' Eric interrogated him, suddenly serious. Precious seconds were trailing down the sand timer that measured a game they both seemed to have forgotten about.   

'It's all I've ever had.' Rudyard pulled his shoulders up to his ears in a gesture of apathy. 

‘Still, you shouldn’t limit yourself, you know.' Eric pointed out passionately. It was an unsurprising sentiment from someone who had qualifications in every field and area from lion taming up to embalming. 'Just because you’ve been doing something all your life doesn’t mean you should keep doing it. After all, you are dedicated and passionate with a sharp, coordinating brain. I'm certain you could do anything you put your mind to. I mean, did you always want to be a funeral director?' 

'No, I wanted to be a Scout Leader for three months, but you already know that.' Grumbled the proprietor of my mousehole, looking a bit chuffed but still managing to take any hint of admiration in his stride.

'I meant apart from that.'

'Suppose so.' Rudyard admitted, tapping his bottom lip with the pen lid thoughtfully. ‘Anyway, I see no problem with rigid adherence to five centuries of family tradition. As I always say: why settle for something new?’ 

'No, fair enough, fair enough.' Muttered Chapman, clearly unconvinced.

'Besides, you'll find that half a millennia of genealogical obligation is not something that I can  undertake  lightly.' Rudyard confessed, doodling idly away, displaying an uncharacteristic level of decadence in wasting a perfectly good sheet like that. His grip around his pen tightened instinctively.l  

‘God, no wonder you are a bit of a mess.’ Chapman chuckled appreciatively. 

'How dare you!' Rudyard spat, but Eric was quick to throw his hands in the air in a contrite gesture of surrender.

'All I'm saying is that's a lot of responsibility.' 

The proprietor of Funn Funerals studied him for a moment to decide whether he'd meant that as an insult but when he found no ill will on Chapman's features. Just a smile, tilted, shaped like an invite. So Rudyard sighed in ascension.

'No, you are absolutely right.'

'Still, you should have a say in the matter.' Frowned Chapman, again with that quiet compassion that suffused his previous smile. 'We should all be allowed to be the masters of our destiny.'

‘Yes, alright’. Muttered Rudyard, unused to the phenomenon of someone standing up for him, rather than against him. Even if it was all theoretical. Even if only for the sake of some banter.

'Because we work in a sad profession.’ Eric suddenly sighed. ‘And us undertakers are solitary figures on the communal landscape. It's a lonely life, mind you, Rudyard.’

'I would've thought the girls were beating down  your  door, Chapman.’ Rudyard commented staring sullenly down at his spoiled answer sheet. He accepted that the sand had sneakily trailed into the bottom of the time already with only a minor sulk, as Chapman's paper was as devoid of answers as his own. 

‘Oh, they are.’ Eric boasted reflexively, causing his dinner date to roll his eyes towards the ceiling. 

‘Astonishing.’

'Still, not many are thrilled by the idea of me coming home from work only to tell them over dinner how I embalmed their grandma that day.' Chapman admitted with a twisted little smile.

'But it's interesting!' Rudyard exploded in a sudden, defensive tirade as if such critics were presently listening in. ‘All the structure! The scheduling! The efficiency!’

‘The opportunity to truly commemorate the passing of a loved one with a few personalised, tasteful details-’ Eric nodded agreement. 

‘The slow and tedious admin-’ Rudyard gushed, eyes glazing over with pleasurable reminiscence.

‘Not to mention that funerals are a great excuse to get outdoors and socialise.’ Hummed Eric and they sat for a moment, looking in front of themselves, contemplating their mirroring passion for their underrated profession.  

‘Still.’ Eric, the more socially conscious of the two of them shrugged. ‘Most people consider the funerary profession depressing.’

‘Rubbish. Other people can get on with their lives.’ Rudyard shook his head disdainfully. Then he curled a hand around his cooling latte and cocked a challenging eyebrow at Chapman. ‘But if you hate it so much, why don’t you stop?’

‘Nice try, Rudyard.’ Eric grinned at him and he beamed back. 

‘Had to give it a bash. But you haven’t answered the question.’

‘Sorry, I’m not trying to be evasive, I’m just-’ Eric huffed, clearly grasping for words. 

‘Being evasive.’ 

‘Well… I…’ Eric frowned and Rudyard leaned back in his chair, looking a bit overcome. 

‘No?’

‘I...don’t know.’ His rival shook his head and Rudyard let his head lolling from side to side almost with sympathy. 

‘I know you don’t know.’

‘I mean, why don’t you?’ Eric tried to change the topic, but Rudyard was adamant. 

‘I asked you first, Chapman.’ 

‘Well, why does anyone do anything?’ He suddenly erupted with some inexplicable urgency. 

‘Why indeed?’ 

‘I suppose it’s because it matters.’ Eric tried in vain to explain, looking mad, sad and confused all at once. ‘Our noble industry, it’s meant to provide that wisp of continuity through the pain and the grief, isn't it?' 

Chapman's voice trailed off and he looked a bit defeated, a bit apologetic for his inability to do justice to his strong sentiments about his chosen profession. But however unpractised and amateurish the confession was, it had an impact on my friend nevertheless.

I watched Rudyard's face change, his countenance relax as he stared at Chapman with yet unseen openness and a touch of reverence, like was looking at all the Christmas gifts he was never given, all the meals he had to skip. 

'Chapman…' He whispered and the slight choke of his voice caused Eric to shoot a glance of concern at him.

'Yes, Rudyard?' He asked seriously and his hand moved, almost of its own account, towards Rudyard's, perhaps to ease the other man's white-knuckled clutch on his cup.

There was a moment of silence, filled with almost unbearable levels of anticipation before Rudyard stammered. 

'W-What is that smell?'

Only now did I and Chapman realise that there was the distinct pong of something burning in the air. Eric's eyes widened almost in panic as the sudden recognition sunk in and he shot to his feet.

'Good grief, Rudyard! The lasagne!' 

He rushed off to the kitchen and Rudyard went following after - only pausing for a moment to scoop me up from the table. When we caught up with Eric he was just taking out the smouldering remains of the lasagne from the oven in a cloud of smoke. He plopped it on the counter with palpable despondency. 

‘Well, there goes our dinner.’ He muttered sullenly as he shrugged off his oven mittens. Rudyard, meanwhile, studied him with an expression I’ve seen on him only once before; in a hospital bed, up to his hip in plaster, after a major nervous breakdown over the minor matter of forty rotting clown carcasses polluting his funeral home. But before he’d declared that Funn Funerals will attempt the impossible and try to pull off a funeral for once. 

‘I bet we can find a way to salvage it, Chapman.’ He said, unphased in the face of defeat. After all, he had plenty of experience with it. During the past seventeen years, a state of emergency had become second nature to him, as self-evident and unremarkable as homeostasis.

‘No. It’s a complete write-off.’ Pouted Chapman with an almost childish level of frustration, giving an angry prod to the ovenproof dish. ‘Look.’

‘Don't make a production out of it, Chapman.’ Rudyard chided, not altogether unkindly. ‘Hand me that knife. I’ll chip away at it.’

Chapman rummaged for a butterknife which he passed to Rudyard, who’d begun to scrape off the burnt cheese from the top of the course - offering me scraps, which I gladly accepted. After all, an author never knows where her next meal is coming from.

‘Whilst I’m doing this, go and fetch us some plates.’ Rudyard calmly instructed and Chapman obeyed, though with a little frown of scepticism. But by the time he returned with two pristine chargers (and an elegant little saucer for me) Rudyard mostly recovered the slightly charred dish. He carved out a small square for me first, then offered the knife to Eric.

‘Now dig in, Chapman, we've got to make up time.’ He nodded without fuss, but instead of getting a helping, Chapman retrieved a fork and took an uncertain little bite first. His eyes doubled their size in sincere appreciation when the first wave of the taste had hit him. 

‘Blimey, Rudyard you did a splendid rescue job on that!’ He muttered and forgetting himself entirely he proceeded to double-dip, stabbing his fork right back in the stoneware platter. Rudyard stared at him, and where normally he would have been scandalised by such savagery, today he simply looked awestruck. I have to admit, there was something staggeringly homely about the sight of Chapman, sans his jacket, sleeves rolled up and bowtie discarded, eating with gusto straight out of a pan. It made him appear uncharacteristically candid and casual, softer around the edges somehow. Catching his stare, Eric frowned up at Rudyard through a third mouthful. 

‘What’s the matter, Rudyard?’ And then quickly realising that his guest had no suitable cutlery, he hastily produced another fork with a chuckle. ‘How silly.’ 

Rudyard still hesitated, contemplating the pointed gesture of dishing out some lasagne on a plate for himself - then decided against it and leaned on his elbows by Eric’s side, pinching a mouthful on his fork, also straight out of the bakeware. He bit bravely down on the sizzling meal of staple foods that, for him, was a rare delicacy.

‘By god but why does it taste like this?’ Muttered in disbelief after the first gulp and Eric looked down the perfectly innocent and ordinary pasta bake.

‘Whatever do you mean? It tastes just like usual.’ Then, with worry. ‘Why, do you not like it?’ ‘

'I didn't say that.’ Rudyard protested, helping himself to a second bite and then quickly to a third. He began to polish the dish off in earnest, only coming up for air and, on occasions, to check whether I had enough in front of me.

Eric, in the meantime, stopped eating altogether in favour of watching with pride the evident pleasure Rudyard was gorging himself with. That is, of course, until he was caught out by the other funeral director. 

‘Chapman.’ Rudyard growled with the fork still hanging in the corner of his mouth. 

‘Hm?’

‘You are not eating, why aren’t you eating?’ He demanded, sounding slightly hysterical.

‘No no, it’s just-’ Eric shook his head, looking a bit abashed but Rudyard was already in the throes of panicked paranoia.  

‘Oh my Lord, it's poisoned, I KNEW IT.’ He scowled down at the plateful of his ragù. 

‘No! No! I’m eating! I'm eating! Look!’ Eric rushed to reassure him and had another bite, making a show of enjoying the benign dish. ‘Mmmm!’

‘That’s better.’ Rudyard nodded, appeased and he proceeded to have another helping, though with less urgency this time. 

They ate in mutual, muted agreement. Too busy savouring the flavours with little to no attention to spare for interaction; except for this one time Chapman guided Rudyard's fork towards a less charred bite, the prongs of their cutlery meeting in a metallic kiss before he snatched up the more burnt morsels himself. Rudyard followed the trail of the crusty bite to Eric's smirking lips, swallowing hard around his own mouthful before he was able to straighten his eyes towards the now-empty pot.  

'Right, that's the lot, I'm afraid.' Eric concluded with satisfaction while filling the oven dish with soapy water and Rudyard hummed noncommittally beside him. The atmosphere should have been of satiation, but the stolen, fluttering glances between the two men spoke of some anticipation. Heavy and sedated with the scrumptious meal in my stomach I was about ready to nod off, but the funeral directors both looked alert, expectant, high-strung somehow. Eric stalled by producing two champagne flutes, filling his own with some bubbly and Rudyard's with clean, cold milk. They were quiet, save for the din of the million things being unsaid between them.

'You know,’ Eric began again, clearing his throat like he forgot the command of his voice in the brief, silent interval. 'I have this recipe for roast peacock I’ve been meaning to try-’

‘Roasted peacock?’ Rudyard asked, tongue in cheek, as he accepted the glass offered to him. His fingers brushing against Chapman’s as the pitcher was passed about. ‘That's a bit of a gamble, isn’t it?'

'What do you mean?' Chapman responded with matching coyness, his voice solemn but his eyes japing. 

'Well, one does not like to boast but if it wasn't for me recovering your disaster of a dish-' Rudyard’s unrestrained joy as he teased threatened to burst some secret seams and there was a matching level of reckless abandon in Eric laughter as he lobbed a wet tea cloth towards his rival. 

'Oh, you absolute sod. You’ve got a problem with my cooking?’ 

‘Well, take your lasagne. It’s got too much pasta, hasn’t it? And to be honest… too much meat. It’s a complete write-off whichever way you look at it. Whereas if you were to dine at Funn Funerals-’

‘Rudyard,’ Eric chided merrily. ‘dinner dates are not a competition, you know.’ 

‘Then why am I winning?’ 

‘Ok, so do I get this right? Are you challenging me to a no-holds-barred, winner takes all cook-off?’ Eric asked his grin so wide, so open that we’ve caught a rare glimpse of his smile lines. Rudyard cast his eyes at his milk glass in response like he was trying to divine something from there, mumbling.  

‘It’s a challenge. Or an invitation. Whichever way you want to look at it.’ 

There was an instantaneous change to the pressure of the air, appearing like the promise of a storm, manifesting as a thick, deep silence. Chapman's throat strained against it audibly as he tried to force some levity in his response, lifting his champagne flute in a mock salute. 

‘A bit of friendly competition wouldn’t hurt, I suppose.’

Rudyard touched his glass to Eric's softly, with a lopsided smile.

'To friends?' He suggested.

Eric watched the way the brims of their glasses embraced, then he sneaked a second hand around the neck of his cup as he lowered it like he was trying to steady it.

'And to, perchance, more than friends.' He muttered, voice something visceral, before rushing to mask his furious blush behind a quick, fortifying gulp of Dom Perignon. 

But there was no chance of hiding away now.

I felt a crack and a sizzle in my spine, like a discharge of static electricity as a sudden decisiveness appeared on Rudyard's face. He cast his glass aside and reached up to take Chapman's too. Eric endured passively as he disengaged his fingers and remained motionless, aside from emitting a shuddering breath as Rudyard raked his palms gently along his cheeks. The men studied each other in a moment of precarious equilibrium that precedes a freefall. Then Rudyard was petting helplessly at Chapman's temples, who hooked his arms around his back and between his shoulder blades in response. With his eyes fluttering closed, Rudyard surged to his toes, while Eric leaned down to meet him; the thrill of soaring met with the release of the plunge. And just as their foreheads flushed together, just as their noses nudged one another- 

The doorbell rang. 

The intruding, treacherous noise echoed mercilessly through the length of the vast caverns of Chapman's, leaving a pang of regret in the air.

'Let's pretend that we're not here, then they'll go away.' Eric whispered hotly into the narrow space of their mingled breath, the wisp of his words teasing Rudyard's lips. Meanwhile, Rudyard was having trouble swallowing around some emotion in his throat, something light but invasive like a mouthful dandelion fluff, threatening to choke him as the doorbell rang again, with more urgency this time. One of the copious intercoms of Chapman's came to life and Agatha Doyle's voice filled the intimacy of the kitchen.

'Toodle-oo, Mr Chapman.' 

Rudyard allowed his palms to fall from Eric's face, blindly tracing a trail along his shoulders, mapping the way the fabric stretched around the strain of his enveloping arm until he was able to wrap his wrists around Chapman's as they clutched his hips. He eased the desperate carve of the clever, dexterous fingers.  

'Go on, Chapman.' He sighed into the other man's skin, inhaling the intoxicating aroma of aftershave before he tore himself away. 'Your public needs you.' 

'Give me five minutes, that's all I need!' Vowed Chapman, worrying Rudyard's fingers like they were rosary beads, before giving them a farewell squeeze. Rudyard nodded in agreement, but I could see the strain come creeping back to his spine, his mouth as soon as that touch was lost. All traces of ease fell from him, gradually giving way to the familiar, crippling tension to his posture, to the restive, volatile demeanour. By the time he caught up with Eric at the front door he was back to being his usual high-strung self.  

Chapter Text

'How can I help, Miss Doyle?' Eric asked through the crack of the door and though his manner was impeccably polite, it lacked its usual enthusiasm. Eric sounded court and he pointedly left the security chain in place. 

'Mr Chapman. You're in! Thank goodness you're here!' Agatha Doyle heaved like she quite literally ran all the way to the front door of the funeral parlour, seeking refuge. 'There’s been a death at the Owl Sanctuary. There was nothing we could do! You've been sent for! We need a funeral.'

'Well, actually I’m rather busy and I’m closed for the evening- ' Eric began but Rudyard talked over him, stepping to the door. 

'A funeral? Who's the lucky recipient?' 

'Yep, sure.' Muttered Chapman, unhooking the security chain with an air of defeat, rolling his eyes towards spheres, tinged pink by the first brushstrokes of the new dawn.

'Mr Funn?' Spluttered Miss Doyle. 'What are you doing here at this hour?'

'I could ask the same thing from you Miss Doyle. Surely, this could have waited till tomorrow? ' 

'It is tomorrow.' Miss Doyle pointed out, gesturing at the golden halo of the daybreak. 

'Technically speaking, yes.' Admitted Chapman. 'But not by a long chalk.'

'Well, it all sounded really urgent. It's meant to be about a funeral of great import. And seeing how I'm already here-'

'What's wrong, Miss Doyle?' Chapman asked, caving.

'You know Grace the owl in the owl sanctuary?' 

'Of course. I always respected her. Great sense of humour.' Nodded Chapman seriously.

'One of the best.' Miss Doyle agreed. 'She sort of inspired the Bachelor Auction; some of the money was going to go to finding out why she kept shredding her feathers.' 

'Mmm. No, that doesn’t intrigue me.' Confessed Rudyard, arms crossed, unimpressed by the small talk.

'Well, turns out it was because she was ancient by owl standards, a real Methuselah. The oldest owl in the whole of the sanctuary. At least until she died but ten minutes ago.'

'Oh, how tragic. Sad to see her pass.' 

'Indeed. However, all that money we raised now has nowhere to go-'

'I mean there's still the actual  running  of the sanctuary.' Chapman suggested the obvious, earning himself a dismissive, if not chiding sort of hand gesture from the local purveyor of treats.

'Oh, well Desmond had a change of heart in that regard.' Miss Doyle explained in a flurry, pushing her glasses back on the bridge of her nose. 'He says that if the owls were able to muddle by on their current funds until now then there's no reason to give them all that extra cash.'

'Outstanding.'

'So instead he wants to splash out on a truly lavish funeral to commemorate the passing of Grace whom he considers a true local legend. He wants the event to be a real  hoot , if you catch my meaning. Hehe.' The sweet saleswoman chuckled to herself, chuffed with her amusing aphorism, deeply unaware of the discomfort she was sprouting. Even though Rudyard was growing visibly more displeased, his face setting into forbidding lines; mouth pressed, burrows frowned, eyes narrowed. Eric was also becoming more and more distressed, a blush in a shade of deep fuchsia creeping up on his neck from behind his collar he tried desperately to loosen.

'Quite.' He mumbled while Miss Doyle only became more enthused.

'He specifically requested this funeral to be your wildest yet! And he's willing to spend a lot of cash on it.' She announced, following up with a conspiratory wink, drawing a moan from Rudyard who was rolling his eyes so hard that he was risking a strain.

'I can't believe this.'

'Yes. Well,' Eric cleared his throat, flustered as ever, trailing imperceptible little side glances at Rudyard even as he addressed Miss Doyle 'while you know that I am always happy to help in any way I can, it's actually the Funns who could be considered experts of funerals of our avian fellows. Remember their burial of Hardy, the seagull at sea? The late Captain Sodbury was really moved by it. It was a traditional and valuable service, befitting an ancient, distended mariner. Hardy's carcass laid to rest close to home, shunted off to the sea, just as the sun began to set and night unfurled its eternal shroud-'

For what it's worth, he sounded truly impressed by the Funns most daring funeral to date. Which is saying something given how he was, at that time, busy sipping a Shirley Temple, aboard a yacht, in the company of Michael Douglas and a Twister board.

'Yes, well-' There was a doubtful slant to Miss Doyle's stiff smile but at least she had the decency of looking a bit regretful over appraising Chapman so much in the company of his foremost competitor

'The wind, the waves, the wild ocean current…' Chapman listed in the meantime, his voice becoming breathy and dreamy. Though he was probably as enamoured with the general concept of striking out to the unknown as with the specific funeral in question.

'All very touching staff, I'm sure.' Miss Doyle agreed in her most diplomatic merchant manner, looking unconvinced, before admitting. 'But I believe that the council would prefer to have some fun.'

This made Rudyard truly snap and he threw his hands violently in the air. Because it was becoming utterly demeaning, this negotiation between Eric and Miss Doyle that played out as if Rudyard was a sick mule that Chapman tried to pass off as Seabiscuit.

'Oh my God.' He harrumphed as Miss Doyle began to elaborate.

'You know; a bit of glitz and glamour – something to remember. Bring everyone together and make a night of it. An event, a celebration. And that certainly seems to be your niche, one could say.' She remarked with that throaty laugh of hers and all that Rudyard could do to stop himself from stomping his feet in a fit of distemper was to cry out.

'Oh my Jesus God.' 

'Not to mention that since Grace was a beloved eccentric, dear to everyone, regardless of their age or gender Mayor Desmond wanted someone of your renown and calibre to bury her. After all, not all funeral directors on the island have the personal endorsement of Lady Templar, our leading socialite…' Catching herself again the constable slash confectioner turned to my friend. 'No offence, Rudyard-' 

'Somebody make this stop-' Rudyard muttered, obviously wishing he still had his pen to take his frustration out on. Meanwhile, Eric quietly mouthed, frowning, with a new strain to his voice.

'Vivienne?' 

'Not to mention that you are regarded as the best man miles around, Mr Chapman.' Agatha was shrugging now, almost apologetic, cottoning on to the stiffness of the atmosphere. 'Everybody loves you, you help us all enjoy ourselves and you are powerful and popular to boot-' 

'I don't know, Miss Doyle.' Eric held his palms up against the disarming array of compliments like a pliant victim of daylight robbery. 'If the events of the Bachelor Auction are anything to go by Rudyard became quite the overnight sensation himself.' 

'Well, I doubt that the new article will curry him any favours with the locals, Mr Chapman.' Miss Doyle scratched her head, dislodging some strands of her tightly plaited hair in her palpable discomfort as the funeral directors exchanged some confused glances.

'What article?' Rudyard demanded. 

'Oh, then you haven’t read it?' Blinked Miss Doyle with evident surprise.

'Read what?' Eric asked, flabbergasted.

'In today's Piffling Matters.' Miss Doyle bent to retrieve Chapman's copy of the periodical in question from where it lay, neglected on Eric's porch. She offered the neat roll of paper to the rightful owner, but Rudyard snatched it from her, violently, and shaking the tabloid out he began to read aloud.

“Last night, funeral director, socialite and all-round sport Eric Chapman endeared himself to Piffling by donating a tremendous sum of five thousand pounds for the betterment of the Owl Sanctuary. And his charity didn't end there; Mr Chapman bit the bullet and took pity on Piffling's least popular resident too-"

Rudyard's hands began to tremble where they were clenched around the paper, while Eric stared, eyes wide, mouth agape, mumbling: 

'Blimey-' Composing himself somewhat he took a step towards Rudyard, perhaps to comfort him. But Rudyard wasn't done yet.

And neither was Sid Marlowe, it seemed.

"Relieving us of the burden of having to bid for Rudyard Funn. In an unparalleled display of goodwill, Mr Chapman encumbered himself with the truly  grave  task of spending the night in the company of the bizarre little ma-" I can't believe this.'

Rudyard crumpled the paper in his unsteady hands. His chest was heaving rapidly, erratically and his red-rimmed, moist eyes belied the possible reason behind his uneven breathing. Eric finally came up to him, hands raised in an unmistakable gesture of soothing. 

'Bloody hell. Rudyard.' He whimpered, his face a medley of grief, guilt. And, unfortunately, pity.

'Well, Chapman.' Rudyard stopped his rival's approach by thrusting the paper into his chest. Eric tried to draw Rudyard's wrist to his own sternum, but Rudyard snatched it back like he was scalded. The issue of Piffling Matters fell limply between them. 'I hope you are proud of what you’ve accomplished here today.' 

He was seething, clutching his indignation like he was clasping at a handful of water; the anger was trying to escape the cracks, give way to bereavement. But Rudyard was fighting it valiantly, swallowing it back, pushing it down, smearing it away surreptitiously with his forearm where it was overflowing at the corner of his eyes.

Meanwhile, Chapman's sympathetic expression was morphing into something wounded. Clearly, he hadn't expected to bear the bane of Rudyard's wild claims and accusations, perhaps thinking that all that distrust and paranoia was behind them.  

'Why the hell are you like this, Rudyard?' He demanded, desperate, angry. 'I didn't arrange for this article to be published and you've no reason to believe otherwise.'  

'Ooh isn't that right?' The welling rage in my friend's chest needed an outlet and Chapman with his sad complexion, reminiscent of a Bernhardinner's, seemed like the perfect target. 'And it just  so  happens that everything works out fine for Eric Chapman. Admit it; all last night was about was flashing your cash and generous nature, painting us at Funn Funerals as terrible people-' 

Eric sucked the air in, sharply. Colour rose high on his cheeks, abruptly, like he was slapped.

'Ok, first, not true-' He tried in vain to redeem himself still, but Rudyard was in no mood to listen any longer.

'But I'll say this, Chapman' He milled out his vengeful words from between his gritted teeth. 'bashing our reputation so people would be screaming for  you  to take their business because you are such a great guy is an exceptionally low blow. Even for you.'

'Just think about what you are saying, Rudyard.' Eric pleaded, growing impatient. 'Why would I resort to obvious lies and underhand tactics when I already put the fun in funerals; and everyone knows it?'

It was intended as a bit of a jab, an attempt by Chapman to inflict some pain in return for what he had to endure. But while Rudyard would have taken the mild insult in his stride on any other day, now it felt like another twist of the blade freshly dipped in his back. 

'Why you despicable-' He emitted with a pained, bestial sort of roar, lashing out himself, almost blinded by rage. 'I didn't say you  need  to rely on plots and schemes. I just said that you would.' 

There was a rushing sensation of sudden de-escalation to the air as Chapman's complexion suddenly closed up. All the anger had escaped him and his face became a neutral, cold mask. He threw the front door wide open, but without any passion to his motions and gestured towards the outside world with his head.

'Rudyard.' He said with quiet solemnity. 'Enjoy yourself.'

'Fine.' Rudyard blinked, almost surprised that the row was over. Regardless, he pulled himself to his full, still rather diminutive height, thrusting his chin proudly up and out. 'I've been thrown out of better kitchens than yours, you know.' 

And he marched through the threshold in such haste that I barely had time to escape the confines of his front pocket, throwing myself on the doorknob in a death-defying feat of acrobatics.

Yes, yours truly decided to hang about the funeral home of Chapman's. Because sometimes it took a reasonably observant mouse to see that not only did Chapman lack the motive to sabotage Funn Funerals in such an underhanded manner but he also lacked the means and the opportunity as he spent the night under the constant surveillance of Rudyard.

Still dangling on the handle, trying to gather myself I watched Chapman do the same as he picked off some invisible fluff from his dishevelled suit. He buttoned his waistcoat back up and replaited his bow tie while Miss Doyle watched with mute discomfort. The ex constable finally rasped her throat to get Chapman's attention. 

'Oh my.' She muttered not altogether without sympathy. 'Well, I think I’ll hit the road, Mr Chapman. Oh, by the way - what shall I tell Desmond about the funeral?' 

Having gained better control over his appearance Eric looked his usual, composed self again.  

'I'll be with him first thing in the morning and we can discuss the details then. Would that work for you?' His smile was merely a hair’s breadth away from being sincere. 

'Tremendous. Now I’d better be shooting back to work – the hoodlums have been tripping on butterscotch and I ought to give them a stern talking to.’ Agatha’s scorn was mild at best; after all, she had known the alarming effects of indulging in dolly mixtures herself. ‘Toodle-oo!' 

With that she turned on her heels, leaving Eric alone once more. In the quiet solitude of his funeral home, Eric let out a deep, sad sigh, picked up the crumpled newspaper and walked to his front desk where he binned the periodical with unusual malice to his gestures. He then proceeded to grasp the edge of his table with both hands and hang his head between his shoulders. 

‘You know, I can see you down there.’ He said, even though his eyes were tightly screwed shut. Still, I felt there was no point in keeping strum. I addressed him directly instead. 

‘Hello, Madeleine!’ He looked up at me with a pained smile. ‘What are you still doing here?’

I told him, to which he responded by easing his contrite posture. 

‘I’m fine.’ Cramming his hands in his pockets, he averted his gaze, as he promised.’Honestly. I’m just… collecting myself… So push off, and I’ll see you later, OK?’

He tried to look brave but wasn’t doing a terrific job of it. When I said as much he simply shook his head.

‘You should be with Rudyard, really.’ His voice was mournful, making him sound like a man who perhaps regretted some words hastily spoken, but who had no intention of taking them back. Still, his concern for Rudyard seemed sincere enough. ‘When you lose one friend… you sort of need the other ones.’

To that, I responded by admitting that was precisely the reason why I stayed on. Because while I did not enjoy going behind Rudyard’s back or fraternising with his enemy, the proprietor of my mousehole was practically padded with friends when in comparison to Chapman. There was no arguing with Eric, however. Mostly, because he simply picked me up and ferried me gently to the threshold of his foyer. The manhandling could have been a bit demeaning, of course, but he did it so respectfully that I did not have a basis to complain. Besides, we both saw that Rudyard only took a few paces away before he paused and was now frantically tapping himself down in a desperate search for me    

‘Off you go, Madeleine!’ Eric encouraged me with a fond, bereaved smile. ‘Scarper!’

So I joined Rudyard, settling in his trouser pocket as I was too wary to climb all the way to his topcoat. He still noted my presence with evident relief. 

‘Madeleine, there you are.’ He sighed as he made his way towards Funn Funerals. I tried to look back at Chapman, but he’d already disappeared inside the cavernous, dark belly of his funeral parlour of monstrous proportions. 

We nipped home quiet enough to not to disturb the pensive anticipation of the scene that greeted us; the women of Funn Funerals, sitting in amicable silence in the foyer. Antigone on the floor, with her back against the last remaining piece of furniture, braced up by the counter as she curled around a raunchy sort of book, biting her thumb in contemplation. Meanwhile, Georgie was perched on the worktop, her single remaining stiletto flung carelessly beside her as she played some complicated, single-player version of cat's cradles with a truly amusing piece of string. The equanimity of the moment was only so deep, however, as we learned when Rudyard softly cleared his throat to alert them to his presence. They both sprung to immediate attention in their own ways. Georgie with her back straightening to the rigidity of a ramrod as she sat, while Antigone proceeded to slouch like someone just delivered a crushing blow between her shoulder blades. Rudyard attempted to keep his composure, but his expression slipped in the face of their ardent curiosity.

'Georgie, Antigone what are you still doing here?' He asked, trying for a disciplinary howl of rage, failing miserably. There was about as much spunk left in him as you'd find in a beaten general and his exhaustion, rolling off of him in thick waves, seemed to choke his team up too.

'We thought we’d wait around. See how you got on.' The forced cheery falsetto of Antigone must have sounded too fake to even herself. Because she grimaced at her own shrillness and allowed her voice to trail off.

'Well, how did it go?' Asked Georgie much more evenly.

Rudyard swallowed hard around the lingering taste of defeat, fighting to bring himself to say.

'Ghastly end to a ghastly evening.' Raking his eyes over his staff team with a tight, firm sort of fondness, he added. 'But you already knew that, didn't you? That's why you stayed instead of going to bed hours ago like you should have.'

'Well, yeah.' Georgie drawled. 'Kind of-'

'We saw the article, Rudyard.' Antigone produced an incriminating copy of Piffling Matters from behind her, pushing it into view in the middle of the floor, in a gesture of admittance. Rudyard scowled at it with disdain. 

'Chapman was stringing me along, just like you all said.' He sighed, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes, then smoothing them over his forehead and into his hair, dispersing whatever hold the gel still had on his locks. Allowing his dishevelled look to reflect the state of his mind as he chewed on his bottom lip, grinding down on bitter words that were threatening to escape.  

‘My God, the absolute cunning of the man.’ Antigone sighed with a detached sort of hatred. She was unable to put much heat in her words; she was too focused on the palpable misery of her brother. Still, she added thoughtfully. ‘We ought to set Georgie on him.’ 

‘What would be the point?’ Rudyard asked, drawing a shaky breath, crossing the room in favour of bracing his back against the tall counter. He allowed his head to loll back to ease the tension creeping into the tendons of his shoulders

‘Might be a lark.’ Offered Georgie with cheek, nudging Rudyard where their arms were almost flush against each other. ‘Give me one good reason not to kick him in the knees.’ 

‘None of that wouldn't help.’ Rudyard pointed out, pulling himself up and together again, staring at the ground. He was probably right; all an attack on Eric Chapman was going to accomplish was to earn the scorn of the villagers who already seemed to have run out charitable feelings towards the Funns. ‘Besides, if you crippled him we’d never live it down.’

While Georgie and Rudyard both contemplated this, Antigone made a noncommittal little noise beside them. She flushed avidly under the scrutiny of her team as both her brother and her assistant turned to look at her, but she pressed on nonetheless. 

‘Playing devil’s advocate for a minute-’ She began before Georgie cut her off. 

‘No man has ever said that and then said anything sensible.’ She warned.  

‘It does feel a bit like Eric was just caught up in this mess as much you were, Rudyard.’

‘Oh, don’t underestimate the man, Antigone.’ Seethed Rudyard. ‘I bet he arranged this all in advance, the conniving-’ 

‘But why would he devise such a convoluted plan when everything we can do he can do better, and everyone on Piffling knows it?’ Argued his sister as Ruyard’s eyes glazed over with terror. 

‘It’s to destroy us at last.’ He muttered, looking like he was staring at some terrible apparition. ‘The perfect revenge for what I did. Or was it because we existed in the first place?’

‘He hasn’t beaten us yet!’ Georgie declared, causing her boss to moan in response.  

‘Hasn’t he? Destroy the reputation and you destroy the man, that’s what I always say.’

‘But he couldn’t have known! He just couldn’t!’ Antigone strained to explain, her expressive hands fluttering around. That is until she became aware of her own heated gesticulation and tucked them behind her back. ‘Even Eric Chapman wouldn’t bank on you becoming popular!’ 

‘What’s your point?’ Rudyard narrowed his eyes, happy as ever to start a disagreement but it seemed that Georgie wasn't going to let them go down on that particular path today.

'It doesn't matter.' She declared, causing the Funns to snap at her in unison.

'Yes, it does!' 

'Listen, the point is that this still isn't a complete disaster.' She insisted, ignoring her bosses.

'Isn't it?' Wondered Rudyard in a renewed fit of apathy, but the youthful dogsbody simply nodded earnestly.     

'You musn't pay attention to all this fracas, Rudyard. Damn Marlowe and all his media types. They are all fundamentally dishonest.'

'Isn't your girlfriend a radio host?' Antigone wondered aloud, causing Georgie to bark at her. 

'Got a problem with it, sunshine?' 

'No, no, fair enough.' Antigone surrendered as she didn't really mean anything by the remark. She was merely contemplating the possible conflict of interest. ‘No. Fair enough.’

'Trust me, this scandal will be forgotten before you can say "Piffling's extremely fast-paced news cycle" three times quickly.

‘Do you really think so?’ Antigone asked gloomily, earning a stern look from her assistant. 

‘Antigone.’ Georgie’s voice was impassioned. ‘Rumors may come and go. Fame can be fickle. But when the spotlight fades we'll still be where we've always been, still standing, after five hundred years, despite everything we’ve been through. We are traditional. We are dependable. And people like that.’

She punched her palm for emphasis. Antigone, however, had been depressed since the moment she was conceived. There was a lot more needed to rile her optimism. 

‘No, people like bouncy castles and a waterslide.’ She pointed out matter of factly. 

‘That too.’ Georgie was quick to admit, but her confident smile never wavered. ‘But we've got something to rely on Eric Chapman doesn’t.’

‘Oh, stop it with the coffee machine-’ Groused Rudyard.

‘No. I meant each other.’ Georgie was full of quiet sincerity as she pointed that out. She allowed her head to loll on Rudyard’s shoulder in an unusual gesture of affection. And where Rudyard would normally have reprimanded her for such an act of sedition, today he simply rested his chin on the top of her head. ‘We've got each other and we are going to fight with everything we've got.’

Appearing deeply moved, Antigone stood herself and reached over her to soothe her hand against Rudyard’s sore neck and give it a gentle squeeze. That is before she grew embarrassed by her momentary lapse of composure and snatched her palm back. 

‘Georgie, that was actually beautiful.’ Still, she confessed, while her assistant chuckled against Rudyard’s shoulder. 

‘And Eric can shove his Bachelor Auction up his arse.’

‘So poignant I could cry.’ Added Rudyard, his voice sounding a bit teary indeed. 

‘I promise you this: Eric’s gonna win this over my dead body.’ Georgie vowed, sitting up, a renewed burst of energy cruising through her body despite the odd hour. Rudyard, on the other hand, allowed the day’s fatigue to wash over him at once.  

‘He wins everything else, why try to hold back the tide?’ He whispered with a little shrug. 

‘I’m great at holding back the tide.’ Georgie was quick to volunteer while Antigone peered up at him queerly from her hunched position. 

‘You are not giving up, are you?’

Rudyard looked over his crew, deep in contemplation. Truth be told, his staff at Fun Funerals were scarily competent. Antigone was an absolute artesian when it came to embalming and Georgie was a natural. In, quite literally, everything. They hardly depended on him in any way, shape or form. And yet, they both seemed concerned and lost as abandoned puppies when confronted with the possibility of their rude and overweening boss capitulating. It was befuddling and yet made perfect sense; Rudyard’s relentless, almost delusional tenacity and stubbornness was often the driving force that goaded the funeral home through a number of obstacles that looked insurmountable at first. Sure, the obstacles were his own making half of the time, but still.    

‘Antigone,’ Rudyard sighed with a slowly blooming smile. His usual intensity was returning to him, shining through even layers of physical and mental enervation. ‘I think you’ll find that Funn Funerals shall keep on going until Eric Chapman have been squished right into the dirt.’ 

‘Yeah!’ Georgie boxed the air in triumph. ‘We should celebrate! Would you like your hot water weak or strong, sir?’ 

Georgie already jumped off the counter and rushed towards the kitchen. 

‘Surprise me!’ Rudyard called after her, then turned to his sister. The twins locked eyes for a moment until Antigone smiled at him with a watery little smirk. 

‘Chin up, Rudyard.’ She tried meekly to reassure him and Rudyard attempted to reciprocate the smile. 

‘Thank you, Antigone.’ They moved as one to join Georgie in the kitchen. I watched them disappear from where I sat on the counter, having clambered out of Rudyard's pocket. I made no attempt to join them. Their voices carried well enough. Instead, I set about to clean my matted fur as Rudyard got busy billowing instructions. ‘Now we’ve got the Novak funeral coming up. Can you get the body ready by Friday, Antigone?’ 

‘Already done it.’ boasted his sister. ‘Some of us didn't get distracted, busy going out there, rubbing shoulders with Piffling’s elite.’ 

‘Getting hammered.’ Georgie teased, causing Rudyard to whine with dismay.

‘Is this a coup? Because I’ve had a very tiring evening!’

I smiled to myself as I listened to their bickering and laughter, chancing a glance at Chapman’s through the window. It looked as dead to the world before the full day's work ahead began as Funn Funerals seemed to burst with life. As my little team of David’s geared up to bring this Goliath of industry to its knees, I thought about the circuities of fate, the struggles of discord, and an intractable acceptance of the way the cookie crumbles.

About a funeral home, dark gloomy and rather depressing. Even despite its flashy colours and expensive materials. 

And about another funeral home that was, even without any heating or hot water, so full of warmth. 

And though I had no way of knowing who was going to triumph in the upcoming battle of giants, one thing was for sure. 

I happened to pick the winning side. 


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